Monday, May 04, 2009

CSO: Once More With Feeling

From the blog "Music in Cincinnati" on May 1, 2009 by Mary Ellyn Hutton

Thursday evening's Cincinnati Symphony concert at Music Hall was about feelings: the young, heart-on-your-sleeve kind, the older, retrospective kind and the kind a person might have in response to something new.

It seemed a well thought out way to close the orchestra's 2008-09 season. CSO music director Paavo Järvi, who has a flair for meaningful programming, conducted with plenty of feeling, too.

The three works on the program were Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, the Symphony No. 6 by Prokofiev and to open the concert, "American Overture" by Benjamin Britten in its CSO premiere.

Guest artist in the Brahms was pianist Nicholas Angelich -- not really a "guest" since Cincinnati is his hometown, but a kind of conquering hero. (The audience broke into applause when Jarvi mentioned him during his taped "First Notes" introduction, screened just before the concert began.)

Angelich, 38, son of CSO violinist Borivoye Angelich, left Cincinnati at 13 to study at the Paris Conservatory. In 2006, Gramophone magazine named him one of "Tomorrow's Classical Superstars."

Interestingly, it was a kind of reunion for Angelich and Järvi, who have performed together in Europe. They have recorded both of the Brahms Piano Concertos with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, of which Järvi is also music director. (The first disk, Concerto No. 1, is on sale at this weekend's concerts, with dual signing sessions by the two artists.)

Composed when Brahms was in his early 20s, it is impassioned music, full of complex feelings about his mentor Robert Schumann, then beginning to succumb to mental illness, Schumann's wife Clara with whom Brahms was in love, and his own burgeoning career.

Järvi opened it with a stab of emotion, the orchestra, bristling with trills and on-the-cusp drama. Angelich entered in a deeply human voice, expressive of both power and lyricism, clothed in a startlingly radiant tone that projected cleanly through the texture, giving affective shaping to his ideas. Never has the dramatic opening theme been so distinctly and passionately stated as by Angelich during the recapitulation, nor has the orchestra sounded so warm and responsive (kudos to the French horns).

The Adagio was very slow and tender, with lovely soliloquizing by Angelich. The melting, Schubertian second theme unfolded with gorgeous inevitability in the clarinets. Overall, it had a prayer-like effect, including a lovely benediction at the end by principal violist Victor de Almeida.

There was a lot of pent up energy going in the Rondo finale, where Angelich and Järvi worked hand in glove to achieve seamless ensemble. After a brief, bravura cadenza, the Concerto built to a majestic ending. The ovation, both for Angelich and Järvi, was long and loud.

Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony could be called his "tragic" symphony. But as in so much music produced during the Soviet era, serious (subversive) feelings like that had to be kept under wrap. Prokofiev, who returned to the Soviet Union after having enjoyed a brilliant career in the West, tried to "get along" but ultimately could not (he was condemned during the infamous 1948 chastisement by the Soviet censors).

His three-movement Sixth Symphony, which was expected to be another heroic wartime symphony like his Fifth, came just six years before his death. Disillusioned by then, he produced a work that contrasts apparent good cheer with its exact opposite. Prokofiev's favorite mask was sarcasm and it drips, sometimes heavily, here.

The lower brass are often the "villains," as in the snarly beginning of the first movement, where the CSO trombones and tuba joined the lower strings in setting a petulant background for the meandering, forlorn-sounding theme heard initially in muted violins. The theme grew impatient, then aggressive as the movement progressed. There were rude bumps by the piano and brasses interrupting the melodic flow and then a bitter march ending in a kind of soft wailing by the horns. It went on like this, giving one the feeling of a carnivorous animal closing in on an unsuspecting village.

Abject terror took hold at the beginning of the second movement with a huge dissonant chord, shrieking winds and bass drum rolls. There was masterful irony in some of the orchestral doublings (like violins and tuba) and the mood became more reflective. But never for long and there was a "doomsday clock" passage with woodblock against a galumphing CSO. Michael Chertock moved from piano to celesta, helping cast a glimmer of light with harpist Gillian Sella, but one still felt like a vise was closing.

Prokofiev decided to "laugh it off" in the Vivace finale (sort of), Principal clarinetist Richard Hawley gave it the necessary bite, and there was a comedic aspect to the recurrent, rhythmic tattoos heard in the timpani, lower strings and piano. A jaunty scene from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" came to mind, but the jig was up when the forlorn first movement theme was sounded by Dwight Parry and Lon Bussell on oboe and English horn. There were various grisly sounds (tremolo strings playing on the bridge), shrill, strained high notes and then a juggernaut to the end, which Järvi gave an energetic flourish.

Britten had a senior moment sometime in the 1970s when shown the score of his 1941 "American Overture." He didn't remember writing it, he said, but no wonder. Though commissioned by Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra, it was for some reason never performed. The premiere took place in 1983 in Great Britain (by the City of Birmingham Orchestra led by Simon Rattle). It is a very happy work, however. Just ten minutes long, it has a Coplandesque feeling, with violin “fiddling” and "Rodeo" like moments, even a brass mini-chorale, with chimes and a stately little march with timpani to the end. One got the feeling that Britten liked it in the U.S.A.

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