Sunday, March 09, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: Lots of new at the CSO

March 8, 2008

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
NOTE: The March 8 repeat of this concert has been canceled due to blizzard conditions. It is the first subscription concert cancellation in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 113-year history.
What no violas? That was about all that was missing in German composer Jörg Widmann’s “Antiphon” for Orchestral Groups, given its U.S. premiere by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday morning at Music Hall. Twenty-five minutes in length, the powerful work was no mere curtain raiser. Commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, which premiered it Feb. 27 under Jarvi’s direction, it filled the stage and the hall with a panoply of instrumental voices arranged into mini-choirs.
Jörg WidmannThough no one would confuse it with the antiphonal works of Italian baroque composer Giovanni Gabrieli (Widmann’s inspiration for the work, he said) it carried its own strong message, a commentary perhaps on today’s globalized, polyglot world. The concert -- which drew a remarkably large audience considering the snow piling up outside and a blizzard warning in effect until Saturday afternoon -- also featured the CSO debut of Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji and the first performance since 1934 of Sibelius’ Third Symphony. Shoji, 24, was the youngest person (age 16) and the first Japanese to win the Paganini Violin Competition. She has been making global strides since then, and her performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto showed that she not only has a voice of her own, but something to say. As for the Sibelius Third Symphony, what he said in 1907 is perhaps just now beginning to be understood and appreciated. The CSO was split and rearranged into sections for Widmann’s “Antiphon,” four violins in their usual position on the left facing six cellos on the right. Behind them in rows came the woodwinds, arranged by sections with four double basses forming the back row on each side. Trumpets, horns and trombones, also in fours, plus tuba, occupied the middle of the stage. Four percussionists with plenty of instruments to play were aligned across the back. Järvi conducted without a baton. Perhaps reminiscent of Gabrieli’s brassy Venetian models, the work gives a strong role to the trumpets, who sounded a bright opening fanfare that ended on a stinging dissonance followed by a huge outburst of timpani. (The character of the trumpets remained clamorous and pre-emptive until just before the end, when their mutes came on.) The musical material is crosscut, with choirs interrupting each other constantly, creating slashing colors and lines that sometimes connect in pointillistic fashion. Percussion played a large role, especially metal percussion, usually applied with crashing effect. It was a world of sounds more or less communicating with or protesting against each other. (At one point the double basses shuddered against the bass trombone for a dismal effect.) A four-note motive finally began to emerge, only to be swallowed up in a clatter of trumpets and percussion before re-emerging in the lower voices. Energy dissipated toward the end, leaving a bleak impression with string harmonics and a brief shiver of winds. Widmann, 34, came to the stage to share the applause with Järvi and the CSO (taking time to shake the hands of the trumpet players). Tchaikovsky’s hyper-romantic Violin Concerto was like a taste of honey after the Widmann. A native of Tokyo now resident in Paris, Shoji seemed a bit slow warming to it (perhaps a touch of nervousness?). Her entrance was almost casual as she introduced the main theme of the opening movement. By the time she reached the cadenza, however, the spark was lit and her technique shone brightly. The movement’s most captivating moment came after that as she climbed into the violin’s highest register and let it sing serenely but softly, spinning out an exquisite elaboration of the theme. The Canzonetta slow movement, where she engaged in some tender dialogues with flutist Jasmine Choi and clarinetist Jonathan Gunn, was meltingly beautiful. Everything came together in the finale, where she demonstrated faultless spiccato bowing, a gutsy tone on the big gypsy theme and a tender one in softer, more lyrical passages. Järvi led the CSO with color and precision, often highlighting piquant inner voices. Friday’s Sibelius Third was only the second in the CSO’s 113-year history. The only previous performance was its CSO premiere in 1934 under Eugene Goossens. No doubt it was received well then, its eclipse -- and indeed the composer’s -- having been determined more by musical fashion than merit. Fortunately, it is no longer a guilty pleasure to love Sibelius’ music, which was largely discounted during the height of 20th-century modernism. The Third, which Sibelius labored over for three years, marks a stylistic shift from his earlier, late-romantic symphonies and pleased few of his fans at the time it was written either. In hindsight, it shows him going his own way, rejecting both Mahlerian expansiveness and the coming harmonic revolution. (There were other protesters, too, like Stravinsky.) Today, his originality within the context of the classic symphonic tradition – the use of motivic development and adherence to absolute music -- is better recognized and appreciated. Besides that, the Third Symphony just sounds like Sibelius. It is his voice and no other, a quality Järvi scrupulously observed by evoking a big sound from the strings, something Sibelius wished to preserve though he scored it for modest winds and brasses and no percussion other than timpani. The jaunty, folk-like first movement transpired with zest in Järvi’s hands, and he brought out all of its perky, almost melodies. The horns were refulgent when called upon, and the enigmatic ending (a characteristic of the composer) sealed it with an “Amen”-like benediction. Sibelius’ most famous work was “Valse Triste,” the spirit of which can be found in the Third Symphony’s muted, melancholy second movement. The pulse shifts from three to two beats per measure and back, giving it a quirky feel, and there are some ravishing moments for divided cellos. It, too, ends somewhat enigmatically as if repeatedly asking a question (soft squiggles in the winds). The answer is an echo of the movement’s opening and soft, broken chords at the end. The last movement serves as both scherzo and finale, the former questing and wandering as if asking “where are we?” Järvi gave it personality as it led into the affirmative conclusion, first stated by a chorale-like motif in the violas. Momentum built as the theme moved up through the orchestra toward the final, joyous C Major chord (a rush that reminds me of the ending of the first movement of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5). With the Third, Järvi and the CSO will have traversed all of the Sibelius symphonies except No. 1, which can be expected as early as next season (to be announced March 16). At intermission, it was announced that the CSO Chamber Players concert scheduled for Friday evening had been canceled and that Saturday morning’s CSO “Lollipop” Family Concert had been re-scheduled for May 10.

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