Saturday, November 22, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: "The Planets" As You've Never Heard Them

November 21, 2008

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Think you’ve heard Gustav Holst’s “The Planets?”
You probably haven’t unless you were at Music Hall in Cincinnati Thursday night (Nov. 20).
Although the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has performed “The Planets” many times, this was their first time with music director Paavo Järvi.
It was like seeing the stars in the countryside, free of city lights.
Järvi not only knows the score, he really knows the score. He has an uncanny ear for detail and knows how to summon textures and colors from his players and craft them into a compelling whole. As a result, the seven bodies closest to the Sun (excluding Earth) took on all the attributes Holst built into them, and then some. (Holst excluded Pluto because it hadn’t been discovered yet, but in any case, it has recently been demoted to “dwarf planet” or “Trans-Neptunal Object.”)
Guest artist for the evening was violinist Julia Fischer in an uncommonly beautiful performance of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto.
Fischer, 25, may have been playing a priceless 1942 Gaudagnini, but the pure, lustrous tone she produces is her own. If the bow arm is what gives the violin its soul, she is a mahatma, (“great soul”). She engages the string so completely that everything from fortissimo double stops to the softest passages emerge with clarity and focus. She is also a sensitive, collaborative musician who interacted closely with Järvi and his players, while Järvi saw to it that there was vivid dialogue between the two. There were dramatic interchanges between the violin and French horns in the Adagio, as well as a small, still moment where she sank to a whisper, but with pinpoint projection over a long-held note by principal hornist Thomas Sherwood.
Fischer spun a sweet, light sound in combination with the violins on the catchy rondo theme that opened the finale -- the aural equivalent of sunlight peeking through curtains. Nothing fazed her as technical challenges mounted, as in the rapid, double-stopped octaves toward the end. The concerto itself, which is less often heard than some, was filled with Czech color and panache.
Järvi launched “The Planets” with shattering force in “Mars, Bringer of War.” The phalanx of brass behind the orchestra (16 players in all) made for a wall of sound buttressed by two sets of timpani (Patrick Schleker and Richard Jensen). Peter Norton shone on tenor tuba, whose urgent sound made a sharp contrast with the feeling of menace conveyed by the low-lying passages that slithered through the orchestra in its wake.
Venus, Bringer of Peace” set up a questioning, four-note theme (principal hornist Elizabeth Freimuth) that was given a gentle, assured resolution in lovely solos by concertmaster Timothy Lees and principal cellist Eric Kim and in silvery textures of harp, celesta and glockenspiel at the end.
Järvi delineated “Mercury” brilliantly as it darted through the CSO, every detail in place to yield a quicksilver, somewhat mischievous portrait of the Messenger god.
If there were smiles in “Mercury,” there were belly laughs in “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” a fittingly big movement with a kind of “Britannia Rules the Waves” hymn in the middle. There were bumptious rhythms, ringing tambourine, clarinets with their bells pointed in the air and a last big swath of the hymn in augmentation with lots of decoration on top.
“Saturn,” a somber and sobering movement (“Bringer of Old Age”), brought dark timbres to match, such as bass oboe (Lon Bussell) and bass flute (Kyril Magg). Järvi shaped it with exquisite care. The sudden, asynchronous alarm in the middle (bells tolling) and the heavy tread of the orchestra yielded gradually to resignation and dissolution, as the violins reached hopefully upward and instrumental colors ran together at the end.
“Uranus, the Magician” (compare John Williams’ “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) brought out the brass band, bassoons a la Dukas (“Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and delightful shrieks of piccolo. Still, this was a good-natured, if slightly tanked magician.
“Neptune, the Mystic” featured the Women of the May Festival Chorus, who sang wordlessly from the Music Hall foyer. This harmonically spellbinding movement seemed to ask “Where are we?” amid the hazy textures and sprinkles of harp, flute and celesta. There was no answer as their voices faded slowly faded away behind the auditorium doors.
Repeats are 11 a.m. Nov. 21 and 8 p.m. Nov. 22 at Music Hall. Note: “Järvi and the CSO will record "The Planets” for Telarc. It’s a safe bet that it will be both a critical and a popular success.

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