Saturday, May 03, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: A season finale worth waiting for

May 2, 2008
The Cincinanti Enquirer
By Janelle Gelfand

It was an explosive finale to the symphony season. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” Friday night was more brutal, powerful and convincing than any in recent memory – including the orchestra’s recording of it a few years ago.
The musicians, who spent most of last month on the road, have never sounded so precise and yet also fearless. Stravinsky’s ballet, which caused a riot in 1913 Paris, still has the power to grip the listener today. On Friday, Paavo Järvi found its power in its primitive, explosive rhythms, which he propelled relentlessly, delivering a performance that was raw and larger-than-life.
“The Rite of Spring” concluded a program that opened with the world premiere of Robert Johnson’s “prairyerth,” a beautifully atmospheric piece evoking the Kansas prairie, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, with pianist Lars Vogt.

“The Rite” depicts the ancient pagan rite of a virgin sacrifice through mystical dances and barbaric rhythms. It is a showpiece for orchestra, and the expanded forces included brass arrayed across the back and two sets of timpani.
Järvi led the orchestra as if it were a life force, with often fast, driving tempos. The sinewy opening bassoon solo (William Winstead) unfolded into vividly chirping winds. Horns lifted their bells, timpani crashed, strings dug in, and staccato chords were given ringing cut-offs. It was as if the earth were opening up.
The musicians performed in bold, dramatic flourishes, and the winds especially shone in their mystical solos. At the other end of the spectrum, Johnson’s “prairyerth,” composed in 2006, was a rewarding opener. The title refers to the grassy prairies of the Great Plains. The piece unfolded like a miniature tone poem, well-crafted, with a stunning solo for trumpet before its luminous conclusion. It illustrated Johnson’s gift for melody as well as atmosphere, and its windswept flavor and majestic color sometimes recalled Sibelius. The audience approved, too. The Cincinnati composer, who was director of the library at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music for 32 years, took a bow. For the centerpiece, Vogt gave a robust reading of Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto. The 37-year-old German pianist is one of a new generation of gifted young musicians, with immense ability and individuality. This was a reading that looked ahead to Beethoven – and perhaps beyond, given that the pianist wrote his own cadenzas. The D Minor Concerto has its share of brooding atmosphere, and Vogt cultivated a dark, dramatic sound, especially in the first movement, that was heavy and a bit austere for my taste. Yet there was much to admire in his thoughtful phrasing, control and the depths of sonority that he found in this music. His inventive first movement cadenza was something in the style of Beethoven, but with unexpected harmonic shifts. Vogt’s touch could be limpid and quite lovely, as it was in the slow movement, and the finale was a joy. Jarvi and the orchestra matched the pianist’s intensity and dark color. At intermission, the orchestra honored three musicians – all members of the viola section – who are retiring at the end of this season: Mark Cleghorn, a member of the orchestra since 1963; Joseph Somogyi, who joined in 1970; and Raymond Stilwell, a member since 1971. The audience gave them a standing ovation.Retiring president Steven Monder was also honored for serving 37 years with the orchestra, 35 as the top executive.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Music Hall.
Tickets: 513-381-3300, http://www.cincinnatisymphony.org/

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