Saturday, May 03, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: "Rite of Spring"" Revelatory Finale for Cincinnati Symphony Season

Paavo Järvi reacting to audience at Music Hall
May 3, 2008

By Mary Ellyn Hutton

“The Rite of Spring” as chamber music?
It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to
call the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's performance of Stravinsky’s revolutionary work chamber music Friday night at Music Hall. Led by music director Paavo Järvi, it was chamber music -- in quality, at least -- for each strand of its complex, shifting textures was clearly focused and one heard voices that often get "smudged" into the mix. Whether hearing a half-dozen instruments or over 100, one got the feeling of “seeing” into the work.
Järvi set it in high relief. He made it huge, as in the fortissimo maelstrom at the end, where the "Chosen One" (the usual lucky virgin) is sacrificed to appease the gods of spring (fertility). And where called for, he made it very small -- as in the impossibly soft passage for muted horns at the end of the introduction to part II ("The Sacrifice").
Evocative highlights were keenly observed, like the antique cymbals in "Augurs of Spring" ("Dances of the Young Girls") in part I and the soft tambourine in "Ritual Action of the Ancestors" in part II. Colors throughout the half-hour work were vividly drawn. The divided violas were lustrous in " Mystic Circle of the Young Girls" (part II). By contrast, the strings were rough and brutal on the repeated hammer blows that begin "Augurs of Spring."
Solo work was superb. CSO principal bassoonist William Winstead gave a shapely, sinuous sound to the bassoon's famously high opening incantation, and his virtuosity was followed throughout the ranks of the orchestra. Järvi, who drew applause during his screened "First Notes” preceding the concert for saying he is not feeling "a seven-year itch" in Cincinnati -- gave it a sense of unfolding drama. The earth came alive in part I, with woodwinds conjuring earthworms pushing through the soul and vines beginning to sprout. Obsessive horn calls and snatches of melody (some based on actual Slavic folk songs) led to an excruciating climax, then a kind of run for the safe house in the concluding "Dance of the Earth."
Part II began slowly and softly, like ink spreading in the water, topped by a spooky high violin motif. The music took on iridescent colors as it moved relentlessly toward the sacrificial dance. Slinky sounds on English horn and alto flute (later bass trumpet and alto flute) gave way to a dance of doom with cold, sharp slashes of trumpet amid constant changes of meter. Needless to say, timpanists Patrick Schleker and Richard Jensen had plenty to do, as did David Fishlock on bass drum.
(Speaking of "lustrous" violas, three members of the CSO viola section were recognized at the concert. Mark Cleghorn, Joe Somogyi and Ray Stilwell retire this season, a full 25 percent of the section! Also retiring is CSO president Steven Monder, who has served the orchestra for 37 years. Bravos to all.)
Järvi and the CSO have recorded "Rite of Spring" for Telarc and copies were available for sale at intermission, as was "The Igor," a delicious Baba Budan concoction of coffee, kahlua (or amaretto) and whipped cream.
Soloist for the concert was German pianist Lars Vogt, a superb classicist who gave both finesse and power to Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor, K.466. He cut through the Concerto's dark, foreboding opening like a ray of sunshine, manifesting both clarity and precision. The Romanza contrasted serene, childlike simplicity with passion -- nothing, however, out of proportion -- while the finale fairly sparkled. (Hear Vogt in works by Brahms and Schubert at 4 p.m. Sunday on the Linton Chamber Music series at First Unitarian Church in Avondale.)
Ending the 2007-08 season right, Järvi and the CSO performed the world premiere of Cincinnati composer Robert Johnson's "prairyerth." As Johnson explained in pre-concert remarks, he was inspired to write the eight-minute piece by William Least Heat Moon's 1991 book of the same name. Moon's book is an affectionate visit to the Flint Hills region of Kansas, the largest remaining area of tall grass prairie in the U.S. (“prairyerth” is an antique geological term for the soils in that area). Johnson, retired director of the Gorno Music Library at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, is a native of Kansas, and there is affection is his work, too. It is not meant to be descriptive, he said, but to evoke feelings one might experience in that special environment.
It opened with a broad, sweeping melody in the cellos, kind of like an unbroken view to a far distant horizon. This was taken up by winds and harp, giving it a shimmering, "amber waves of grain" aspect. The prairie tall grasses in Kansas reach eight to nine feet tall, however, and there is darkness there as well. Johnson explores this aspect, too, and has shaped "prairyerth" with a hint of drama (again non-specific, though he referred to the hard life on the prairie in his pre-concert comments). There is a dark, chorale like theme for low winds, for instance, and considerable thematic development.
Copland, Roy Harris and the New England Classicists come to mind in "classifying" the work, which left one with the feeling that a serious statement had been made, perhaps to the effect that such places as Kansas' tallgrass prairie are rapidly disappearing in today's world.
Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight (May 3) at Music Hall. Hear Johnson in conversation with CSO assistant conductor Eric Dudley at 7 p.m. Tickets at (513) 381-3300 .

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