Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sounds of Spring at the CSO

From the blog "Music in Cincinnati" by Mary Ellyn Hutton on Friday, April 25, 2009

Sounds filled Music Hall Friday evening:

The sound of the organ in Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, of hands clapping – the hall was so full the ushers ran out of programs -- of violinist Midori in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Olivier Messiaen's sublime "Les offrandes oubliées" ("The forgotten offerings").

There was something about this Cincinnati Symphony concert, coming on a downright "balmy" evening following so much wet, chilly weather . . . Attorney Bernard McKay of Newport described it as “the melodious sounds of spring." And indeed, the change of seasons does permeate our experiences, especially in the spring.

Music director Paavo Järvi drew superb playing from the CSO, which responded with the definition, inspiration and clarity that only a great conductor working his own orchestra can achieve.

The headliner was Midori and she did not disappoint, though the impact of her performance was muted by the lack of intimacy in 3,500-seat Springer Auditorium. You can whisper in Music Hall, given its superlative acoustics, but it takes a compelling presence to command attention that way.

Midori -- a tiny figure in a long white dress – has that presence, but it may have been that, even more than what actually reached her listeners’ ears, that brought them to their feet at the close of the Mendelssohn.

Her message was exceedingly musical, but almost confidential. She played with her head bent over the body of the instrument much of the time, her eyes closed as if playing to herself. Also, she plays with remarkable economy of bowing and is able to deliver volleys of notes with amazing precision and control without drawing that much attention to what she is doing.

Though Järvi and the CSO accommodated her the best they could, there were times when the orchestra obscured her lines. Likewise, there were tutti moments (orchestra without soloist) that sounded disproportionately large by contrast, especially in the slow movement.

That said, her playing aimed straight for the heart. The drama of the opening movement (marked “appassionato”) was apparent, the slow movement was caressingly beautiful and her quicksilver acrobatics played out delightfully against warm accompaniment by the CSO in the finale.

Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony, so named for the prominent use of organ in the second half, is an audience favorite and rightly so. Few symphonic works achieve such grandeur and affecting “simplicity” and to the same degree (it is interesting that music from this symphony was used in the film “Babe” about a humble pig facing slaughter on a farm.)

As with everything Järvi conducts, there was amazing transparency here, the revelatory kind where you here things in the texture that you never heard before. This comes from extraordinary musical insight and the ability to communicate it to 100 musicians and have it reflected by them. Just so did timpanist Patrick Schleker underline the harmony of the rustling opening bars of the Saint-Saens. The work’s cyclic themes (recurring in different guises throughout) were always pointed, as in the bubbling winds with their blurred rhythms that led into the gentle Adagio.

Organist Heather MacPhail entered here with the first glimmerings of the organ (the console was situated behind the orchestra). The CSO strings sounded like one instrument, pastel-colored at first, blossoming into a rich romantic sound later after a soft pizzicato buildup. This was a magical movement (McKay’s “spring?”), a kind of tranquil island with the soft rumble of the organ trailing off at the end.

The lively scherzo, beginning part two of the four-movement work, opened with gutsy strings echoed by nifty, agile tonguing by the CSO winds. Pianist Michael Chertock’s scales sparkled as he scampered rapidly upward through the shifting textures.

It was MacPhail’s big moment as she sounded the great C Major chord that opened the finale. Julie Spangler joined Chertock in the glistening piano figures that adorn one of the work’s sublime passages. The effect of the whole was of spinning off into space as the music expanded in contrary motion, organ downward, the CSO upward, toward the majestic end, where Schleker had the last word with emphatic strokes of the timpani (one of which actually broke the head of a drum, but better as a climactic parting gesture than earlier in the symphony!).

Messiaen’s “Les offrandes oubliées” was a CSO subscription premiere. First symphonic work by the then 22-year-old conservatory graduate and organist, it made the case, as did his “L’Ascension,” heard on CSO concerts led by Järvi in 2007, that this great composer’s music should be performed more often by the CSO. It was also an apt choice for an Easter season concert.

Reflective of Messiaen’s staunch Roman Catholic faith, it is a 12-minute triptych on Christ’s crucifixion (the “offering” of the title), human sin (that offering “forgotten”) and the sacrament of the Eucharist (reconciliation).

It is extraordinary music, heartfelt and emotional in its reflection of Christ’s suffering on the cross, suddenly violent and explosive in its characterization of sin. The final portrait of compassion and love, set for violins and violas alone, was infinitely tranquil, wafting upward at the conclusion, where Järvi stood silently for a long moment before letting his hands drop to signal the applause.

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