Friday, October 16, 2009

"Soukoukai" for the CSO at Music Hall

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 16, 2009

There is a farewell party (soukoukai) this weekend at Music Hall.

It's for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which departs on a two-week tour of Japan Oct. 22.

The party, with live music and complimentary desserts, follows Saturday night's CSO concert (Oct. 17) conducted by music director Paavo Järvi. Admission is free and the audience is invited.

The musical part -- which is what the partying is all about -- began Thursday evening with the first of three concerts previewing the tour. The program was a sampler of what the orchestra will perform in four cities in Japan, Tokyo, Nagoya, Nishinomiya and Yokahama.

And a rich program it was, with Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Guest artist, at Music Hall and on the tour, is the superb young violinist Sayaka Shoji, 26, who followed up her impressive 2008 CSO debut with a stunning performance of the Sibelius Concerto. Shoji performs on a Stradivarius, the 1729 "Recamier" on loan to her from Japanese industrialist Ryuzo Ueno. But instruments, no matter how fine, do not play themselves (as great artists seemingly have to reiterate) and the sound the tiny violinist drew from her priceless instrument was so ravishing and well-crafted as to put many a violinist performing today in the shade.

Her vibrato-less entrance in the Sibelius had a soft, limning quality, as if emerging from a distance. Her sound warmed gradually as she approached the violin's first forte passage high on the lowest string of the instrument (G). She demonstrated the daunting technique that helped her win first prize in the prestigious International Paganini Competition at the age of 16 (the first Japanese and youngest violinist to do so). However, her technical arsenal was totally allied to the needs of the music, as in the way she brought out lines in her double stops and negotiated smooth, perfect octaves.

Shoji's tone took on a licorice color in the Adagio, which again featured extended passages in the highest positions on the G string. Interaction with Järvi and the CSO was close, and ensemble was transparent, allowing for soloist and orchestra to truly complement each other and yield a comprehensive listening experience.

These observations applied in equal measure to the bustling finale, where she thrilled the audience with her acrobatics and artistry. It's a safe prediction that Sayaka Shoji, who was born in Tokyo but grew up and began her career in Italy, will be an enormous hit performing with the CSO in her native country.

Järvi's tour package for Japan includes romantic music, American music and music inspired by America, like Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 fits the first category in toto. The CSO played it wonderfully for him, with full, rich strings, eloquent winds and calibrated strength in the brass. He conducted the first movement gently -- every sigh was observed -- and also with muscle, bringing it to an appropriately slam-bang conclusion.

Järvi called for a big Russian sound in the second movement (Allegro molto) and total romantic immersion in the third. This is the famous Adagio, which began with principal clarinetist Richard Hawley's long-breathed solo and built unrelentingly to its shattering climax, edged beautifully with flutes. The Allegro vivace finale glittered with energy and optimism and prompted an encore, Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D-flat Major. (I have heard Järvi conduct Rachmaninoff's Second with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Hall and found it nowhere near as exciting as this CSO Music Hall performance.)

Barber's Adagio for Strings made rapt listening to open the concert. If there is such a thing as absolute zero in Music Hall -- zero noise, that is -- it was reached at least twice during this performance, once after the cutoff following the big string ascent and again at the end, where Järvi let the silence (an integral part of musical expression) linger for a long moment before dropping his hands.

Repeats are 11 a.m. Friday (Oct. 17) and 8 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 18) at Music Hall. Tickets begin at $10. Call 381-3300, or order online at

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