Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 has one of the most beautiful love themes ever written. When the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played that theme, which comes in the third movement, you could only sit in awe at the sonic beauty of this orchestra in this hall.
Perhaps they sounded so great because the orchestra is primed for a tour of Japan, which starts next week, and Thursday’s program was a preview of the music they’ll be performing. Or maybe it was their intriguing new seating arrangement, which repositioned the brass and percussion, and brought the back wall forward. The result was a remarkable presence of sound, which made me wonder whether the orchestra has been sitting in the wrong configuration all these years.
Paavo Järvi, who will lead the orchestra in seven concerts in four Japanese cities, chose a program that was as heart-on-sleeve romantic as it was brilliant, and seemed designed to show off the strings. They have never sounded warmer, and the program was an inspiring send-off.
He opened with Barber’s famous “Adagio for Strings,” last performed by the orchestra three days after 9-11. This was a raptly beautiful performance – meditative, spiritual and deeply moving, and the strings had an unparalleled silken sound.
The evening’s soloist was a 26-year-old Japanese virtuoso named Sayaka Shoji, who performed Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor. She will take that concerto on tour with the orchestra next week.
Although she was born in Japan, the violinist studied in Germany. Shoji’s violin, a 1729 Stradivarius, once belonged to the legendary violinist Mischa Elman. She is a strikingly individual musician, who plays with a combination of pristine beauty and fierce intensity. She projected a great deal of electricity as she tackled Sibelius’ fiendishly difficult passages and soaring melodies, while Järvi and the orchestra captured the aura of the majestic north.
The violinist’s sound in Sibelius’ opening rhapsodic theme was hushed and mysterious, and she took some time to settle in to the movement’s many moods. Her cadenza was impassioned and agitated, and she finished the first movement like a shot.
Her view was emotionally charged in the slow movement, with a throbbing, almost vocal lower register. As she launched into the finale, she dug into the strings. The effect was gypsy-like, and her playing was both spontaneous and fiery.
After intermission, Järvi brought freshness and warmth to Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. It was a performance of terrific sweep through those big, voluptuous melodies, while it still had clarity and lightness. The third movement’s clarinet solo, glowingly performed by principal clarinet Richie Hawley, was deeply interior, as the movement spiraled to a stirring climax. The finale was galvanizing, and the musicians responded with superb playing.
The concert repeats at 11 a.m. today and 8 p.m. Saturday in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-318-3300, www.cincinnatisymphony.org. Saturday’s concert includes a free tour send-off party afterward in the lobby.