Saturday, November 03, 2007

Stravinsky's music beyond words

November 3, 2007


By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post Music Writer

Igor Stravinsky lied. Or he had yet to meet Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Famously known for having declared that "music is by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all," Stravinsky used the mask of objectivity to craft his own powerful means of expression.
Jarvi noted in a "Classical Conversation" an hour before Friday night's CSO concert at Music Hall that when it comes to composers, "you should never trust anything they write," then demonstrated that with a performance of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms with the CSO and May Festival Chorus that packed an expressive punch that may have been beyond words, but certainly not beyond music.
That expressivity was fundamentally and profoundly religious. As such it was well paired with another Stravinsky work, his Chorale-Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" ("From Heaven High I Come to You") based on an organ work by J.S. Bach. A CSO premiere, it also resembled the Symphony of Psalms in its unusual instrumentation, both works utilizing reduced "dark" string sections and predominantly wind sonorities (just cellos and basses in the Symphony of Psalms, violas and basses in the Chorale-Variations).
The second half of the program, which opens a two-week CSO "Stravinsky Festival," consisted of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"). The choice was dictated, said Jarvi, by both composers having been musical revolutionaries.
Prepared by May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, the chorus is as finely tuned vocally as the CSO is instrumentally and they made perfect collaborators.
The three movement Symphony of Psalms is a setting of verses from Psalms 38 and 39 from the Latin Bible (Vulgate, 39 and 40 in the King James version). The Psalms answer each other and it could be clearly discerned in the music.
"Hear my prayer" opened Psalm 38 in music that was stark and imploring, with a hard, relentlessly hammered two-note motif. Psalm 39, "I waited patiently ...and He inclined unto me" was the answer, beginning with a softly uttered, forlorn fugue rising to a loud declamation on "He hath put a new song in my mouth."
Psalm 150 ("Alleluia, Praise ye the Lord") became that new song, unfolding in sublime beauty (thrice-repeated "Alleluias") with crisp accents on "Laudate Dominum."
The concluding "Praise Him on the loud cymbals" lacked cymbals, but offered a vision of eternity instead, with a rhythmic and harmonic ostinato of ethereal beauty.
Beethoven's "Eroica" had the energy and transparency of a chamber ensemble with the sheen of a full symphony orchestra. Jarvi put his individual stamp on it with a first movement that was lyrical and dancelike, a noble Funeral March, a Scherzo dripping with mirth and a finale as filled with character as a puppet theater, with a breathtaking pell mell conclusion.
Repeats are 8 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall. Don't miss Jarvi's "Classical Conversation" with CSO associate conductor Eric Dudley an hour before each performance.

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