Saturday, September 26, 2009

CSO launches 115th season brilliantly

By Janelle Gelfand • • September 25, 2009

Paavo Järvi’s first program of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 115th season on Friday seemed calculated to show off everything the orchestra can do, and more.

It was an ambitious evening, which included a Strauss tone poem, Borodin’s gorgeous “Polovtsian Dances” and a twentysomething rising star performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

But then, there was also the United States premiere of Symphony No. 7, “Pietas,” a 40-minute choral symphony by Erkki-Sven Tüür, co-commissioned by the CSO. Dedicated to the Dalai Lama, it is an important work, an all-encompassing hymn to the modern world, and its texts were majestically sung by the May Festival Chorus.

The evening opened with “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” which details the adventures of the legendary Till. It’s a horn-lover’s dream. The opening flourish (Till’s horn theme) was magnificently played (Elizabeth Freimuth), and Järvi vividly brought out each of the escapades pointedly and with driving momentum. The orchestra has never sounded so brilliant.

Tüür’s Symphony No. 7 somehow made a good pairing, perhaps because of the Estonian composer’s gift for orchestral sonority. For him, the orchestra represented turmoil in the world, and the chorus projected messages of “serene holiness” between agitated passages. Tüür (who later took a bow) chose texts in English of love and peace by spiritual leaders such as Buddha and Gandhi – as well as Jimi Hendrix.

The journey was a mesmerizing arc that began with a mystical “tintinnabulation” of vibraphone and bell-like colors. The orchestral interludes had myriad effects and moods - primeval drones in basses and bassoons, agitated strings, explosive climaxes in brass and percussion – yet they all worked. The celestial, otherworldly sounds that began the piece returned in the end.

The chorus’ most stunning moment came to Buddha’s words, “Fill your mind with compassion.” It was the heart of the piece, and it was performed with unforgettable refinement. The audience gave it a warm reception.

After intermission, the mood was Russian.

Russian-born Alina Pogostkina, of Germany, made her debut in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and she is clearly a young artist who has something to say. She did not project a big sound on her Stradivarius, but one of sweetness and beautiful line. Her view was romantic, but not overly so, and she played with finesse and involvement.

The slow movement, with its haunting Russian theme, was deeply interior, and she turned to carry on a soulful dialogue with the winds of the orchestra. The finale sparkled. There was something unforced and genuine about her playing that was irresistible.

Järvi was careful never to cover her sound, and provided full-blown Russian sweep in the tutti sections.

Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from the opera “Prince Igor” were also irresistible – and not just for the famous theme used in “Stranger in Paradise” (“Kismet”). The chorus sang with fervor and Järvi swept his forces along with exhilarating tempos.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (an abbreviated program) in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300, .

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