By Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 September 2009
Music Hall was packed to the rafters, the crowd was festive, and there was a crush of fans with cameras flashing to get the soloist’s autograph in the lobby.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 115th anniversary on Thursday with an unprecedented season-opening gala concert, conducted by music director Paavo Järvi. It didn’t hurt that Järvi had the star power of Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang as soloist, but there was also a multi-media surprise: A screen over the orchestra, which projected the pianist from various angles as he played. It added an element of showmanship for an artist who really needed no help in that department.
The soloist, with spiky hair and Versace suit, bowed to the sold-out audience with his hand over his heart, and then began Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. He is known for his spectacular technique in the big, romantic repertoire, so it was interesting to see him put his technique to work in this refined, classical concerto that is often compared to Mozart.
For all the hype surrounding his persona, the hallmarks of his playing included lightness, clarity and sensitivity. He communicated with the orchestra as if playing chamber music.
There were glimpses of the theatrical, such as flinging up his wrists, and he seemed to know how to work the camera angles with his facial expressions. Once, while building to a frenzied climax in the first movement cadenza, he suddenly dropped his dynamic level, and nearly flew off the piano bench.
Yet, his touch was quite lovely in the slow movement, and his phrasing was deeply felt. The finale sparkled, and Lang Lang carried on a dialogue with the orchestra that was both playful and brilliant. Järvi was an excellent partner and the musicians supported the pianist well with a mixture of intensity and lyricism.
For an encore, he treated the crowd to a shimmering Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 1 (nicknamed by Schumann “Aeolian Harp”).
The evening opened to the ringing sonority of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” composed for the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942.
Then, for the gala event, Järvi pulled out the stops with three works by Leonard Bernstein. Järvi, who counts Bernstein among his mentors, has a flair for this music, and the musicians appeared to be having fun playing it.
Bernstein’s “Divertimento,” written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is a pastiche of borrowed symphonic themes, jazzy rhythms, blues, a samba and even a turkey trot. One of the highlights was a waltz for strings, with a nicely played duet for cello (Ilya Finkelshteyn) and viola (Basil Vendryes).
The evening closed with Bernstein’s two best-known symphonic works. In the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” the musicians snapped their fingers, shouted “mambo” and put on a virtuoso show, with terrific cadenzas in the percussion section and brilliant playing by the brass (including Robert Sullivan’s screech trumpet). Järvi led with almost fierce power, balancing the flash with moments of stunning lyricism, such as the theme to “Maria.”
The Overture to “Candide” was a galvanizing finish to a splashy evening. As for the screen, the jury is still out.
The Cincinnati Symphony’s subscription season begins next Friday in Music Hall, with Järvi conducting. Tickets: 513-381-3300, www.cincinnatisymphony.org