Wednesday, September 19, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: Season opener a homecoming for Jarvi, CSO

September 15, 2007

Cincinnati Post
By Mary Ellyn Hutton Post music writer

It felt like home at the Cincinnati Symphony's opening concert of the season Friday night at Music Hall.
The 113th season, to be exact, and music director Paavo Jarvi was on the podium after an absence of four months.
He was on a screen above the stage, too, for a new edition of "Paavo's Notes," taped comments by Jarvi on the music to be performed. (The CSO got it right this year after a trial run last season on plasma screens that were too small for most people to see.)
Welcoming Jarvi back had added meaning this season in light of his contract extension last spring. He is now committed to the CSO through August 2011, with an "evergreen" provision for annual renewals after that. His affection for the orchestra, which he has led now for six seasons, was evident, not only in the manner in which the musicians responded to him, but in the warmth he extended to them afterward. As he accepted the accolades of the crowd (a very respectable one for the 3,516-seat hall), he turned to the players, saluted them all and walked into the sections, clutching every hand he could reach.
The music Jarvi selected for the concert had everything to do with the evening's success. He opened with Wagner and closed with Beethoven, two giants of the canon that mesh naturally with the CSO's German romantic tradition.
The choice of guest artist was perfect, too - one of Cincinnati's "own," pianist Awadagin Pratt, a faculty member and artist-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Pratt was soloist in Beethoven's Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra ("Choral Fantasy"), a festive work that heightened the concert's celebratory spirit. Joining him and the CSO were the May Festival Chorus and six vocal soloists, sopranos Helen Lyons and Samantha Staton, mezzo-soprano Soon Cho, tenors Daniel O'Dea and Anthony Beck (current or former CCM students) and baritone William McGraw of the CCM faculty.
Jarvi begin with Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger," followed by "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried" and the Overture to "Tannhauser." He paced "Meistersinger" beautifully, saving the apex for the final statement of the majestic "Meistersinger" theme, which he prepared with a climactic ritard.
"Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried," the third opera of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, was a special treat since it is less often heard on orchestra programs than the other two Wagnerian selections. Some of the orchestra's newest members, principal oboist Dwight Parry, associate principal flutist Jasmine Choi and associate principal clarinetist Jonathan Gunn, were given the chance to shine here as the Forest Bird and other sylvan creatures who serenade the young Siegfried as he lies beneath a tree dreaming of the mother he never knew.
Jarvi sought maximum drama in the "Tannhauser" Overture, from the opulence of the "Venusberg" music to the barest tracery of strings signaling the return of the "Pilgrim's Chorus and the work's final, over-the-top conclusion.
There was a CSO premiere after intermission, by Beethoven no less, his brief (seven-minute) cantata "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage." The full chorus sang with a reduced orchestra, achieving an uncanny pictorial effect. Jarvi can summon the softest, yet most clearly defined sound from an orchestra (or chorus) this listener has ever heard. "Calm Sea" (in the sense of becalmed, therefore windless and menacing) unfolded almost inaudibly but with pinpoint accuracy, broken by a couple of terrifying high A's. As the breeze wafted up through the low strings, there were shouts of joy in the chorus as the ship made its way again over the sea.
Pratt, an artist of distinctive temperament, made the "Choral Fantasy" his own. He dug into the cadenza-like opening with sweep and passion, often tapping his foot on the floor and applying liberal pedal for a huge sound. The variations with orchestra that followed were characterful and drenched in color, despite a few moments of wobbly ensemble (Jarvi seemed taken by surprise at one point). Pratt is a compelling performer, however, and he was sometimes almost an orchestra unto himself.
The soloists acquitted themselves well, as the did the chorus, which lit up the hall as they intoned the familiar theme (familiar, that is, for its similarity to the "Ode to Joy" melody of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony). It was a stirring moment and Jarvi, Pratt and the CSO kept the momentum going for an all-stops-pulled finale, signaling an auspicious start to the new season.
Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall. Note: for an extra treat, don't miss "roving (CSO) violinist" Stacey Woolley at intermission, who took requests, ranging from Bach to "My Old Kentucky Home."

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