Saturday, September 13, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: Watts electrifies CSO opener

September 13, 2008

The Cincinnati Enquirer
By Janelle Gelfand

It’s not often that one hears a living legend perform one of the great piano masterpieces of all time.
Andre Watts helped open the
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 114th season Friday night in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Watts’ view of Rachmaninoff’s Second was, in a word, symphonic. He was an equal partner with the orchestra, for all its lushness and sweep. Yet this was also a performance of stunning poetry, and Watts illuminated every note.
Watts wasn’t the evening’s only star power. Music director Paavo Järvi led the orchestra in its own showpiece in the second half: Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”
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Watts, 62, has sustained a distinguished career since he was first thrust into the limelight as a 16-year-old prodigy. At the keyboard, he is a master of color and sonority, projecting a clear, singing tone. His playing was electrifying as he charged through fiendishly difficult passages with hands flying – once nearly flying off his piano bench.
Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 is known for its outpouring of nonstop beautiful melody. The pianist’s sound was orchestral from the first note. Even though he pulled back when the music became intensely lyrical, he never lost sight of the grandeur of the piece. His phrasing was heartfelt, and he allowed the music to breathe. The collaboration between soloist and orchestra was seamless. Watts often turned to the musicians to communicate, as if playing chamber music, for an extraordinarily intimate effect in the slow movement. He displayed a surge of power in the finale, bouncing on his seat as he muscled through double-octave runs and pushed the tempo to the climactic finish. The crowd was ecstatic.Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” were written near the end of the composer’s life. The finale is almost a dance of death, and its melodies have a melancholy, Russian flavor.The orchestra was in top form. The first of the three dances was super-charged, and the haunting timbre of the alto saxophone (James Bunte) made a striking contrast. The waltz-inspired second unfolded with great beauty, as Järvi swept up the strings spontaneously. Järvi, a master of detail, called for an energized, sometimes rugged sound, especially in the low strings. He led the finale in big, dramatic gestures. At times, it seemed disconnected, although the players gave it a brilliant reading.Järvi opened on a note of pomp, with Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation” March, last played by the CSO in 1936.The concert repeats at 8 p.m. today in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300 .
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