Monday, November 02, 2009

The concerts

Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer, October 31, 2009

Tuning up in Nagoya

Cincinnatians who work at Toyota City meet with Paavo and violin soloist Sayaka Shoji

NAGOYA, JAPAN – Nagoya gave the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra the warmest welcome so far on the orchestra’s Japan tour, in its third concert there on Thursday night. Like the previous two performances in Tokyo, the audience cheered and applauded until, after two encores, Paavo Järvi pulled concertmaster Timothy Lees off the stage. But this time, there were also a number of people giving the orchestra a standing ovation – which is unusual for the normally reserved Japanese audience — including a row of Cincinnatians who work in nearby Toyota City.

The orchestra arrived earlier Thursday via “Shinkansen,” taking up more than an entire car in the efficient and quiet bullet train. Unlike the previous two concerts in Tokyo, which required a bus ride to the hall, Nagoya’s Aichi Prefectural Art Theater was within walking distance of the hotel where the orchestra stayed.

Aichi Prefectural Art Theater is a theater-in-the-round, with a high ceiling and glass acoustical clouds hovering above, and arena-style seating going down to the stage. Centered in the hall is one of the finest organs (and the largest) in Japan, with five manuals and 6883 pipes, made by Germany’s Karl Schuke.

Although there was a good-sized audience, there were a few empty seats for this concert — whether because the economic downturn in Japan has hurt ticket sales, as one record executive told me, or because students and young people are being urged not attend public events due to H1N1.

Järvi’s tour programs have highlighted American music, a request of the Japanese presenter. With the Cincinnati brass standing across the back, the concert opened with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” From the first note, it was evident that this hall was extremely lively and slightly “boomy.” But the presence of sound made the listener feel as if one were onstage with the players. The musicians gave it a powerful and flawless reading, and the sonic effect in that space was mesmerizing.

Thursday’s concert was also the first appearance of tour soloist Sayaka Shoji, a native of Tokyo who now resides in Paris. You could only marvel at the violinist’s formidable technique, especially when she tore through the hair-raising, gypsy-like finale.

Shoji’s playing in this hall was much more intense and driven than it had been in Music Hall in Cincinnati, as if she were fighting the acoustics. She projected an arresting, throaty sound on her Mischa Elman Stradivarius in the slow movement, which was soulful and deeply felt.

But it was Järvi and the orchestra who provided the cool, Nordic atmosphere this work demands. Even so, the more I hear this 26-year virtuoso, the more she impresses me as one of the most strikingly original talents currently on the concert scene.

For an encore, she treated the audience to a beautifully rendered third movement from J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1.

In unusual stroke of programming, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” came after intermission, with Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman making his second appearance of the tour. His view of Gershwin is one of the most individual I’ve ever heard, and a departure from the Brahms and Lutoslawski for which the piano legend is so revered.

Clearly, he seems to have a jazz-inspired, improvisatory view of this work, and he often pushed tempos erratically, and smeared his runs and flourishes. His reading was more subdued in Nagoya than it had been Tuesday in Tokyo, but didn’t disappoint the audience, who brought him back for bow after bow.

The orchestra sounded terrific, and hornist Thomas Sherwood added a memorable moment.

The program ended with another slice of Americana – Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” It was an electric performance, with stunning performances by the orchestra’s soloists, including Robert Sullivan on screech trumpet. The percussion and brass turned up the heat so much that I wondered whether this hall had ever witnessed such an explosive performance.

The Cincinnatians at the concert, who work in Japan for Toyota, included David Ostreicher, Frank Noel and Kiffle Abebe.

“I’m really proud of that orchestra. I was born in Cincinnati, went to Elder and then went to U. C. So for me to here working in Nagoya a few years and to see them come play is really cool,” said Noel. “We love Paavo and the group, but I wanted to support Cincinnati.”

Earlier, on Tuesday in Tokyo, the orchestra performed its second concert of the tour in Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan Concert Hall, bordering on Ueno Park. Zimerman joined for his first performance of the tour, in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Järvi conducted Bernstein’s “Divertimento” and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1.

The hall, built in 1961, has excellent acoustics, and the orchestra’s strings sounded much richer here than they had for their first concert in NHK Hall.

Zimerman’s Gershwin that night was partly genius and partly quirky. His touch and voicing of chords — on his own polished Steinway grand — were stunning, and I enjoyed the way he brought out the inner voices, or made a bluesy inflection here or there.

Then there would be a frenzied section, with propulsive runs that landed on wrong notes. He sometimes added a grace note or two, and also a keyboard-spanning glissando. The slow, jazzy bass theme played in the right hand was so slow it lost momentum. But some of his view sounded wonderfully spontaneous, and may have fit the jazz idiom better than most of the homogenized versions we hear today.

He also appeared to be having fun, as did Järvi and the orchestra. The pianist swiveled on his bench to watch clarinetist Richie Hawley perform his famous opening “smear,” and what a smear it was.

The Rachmaninoff was sheer joy in this acoustic space. The strings shone, from the depth of the basses, to the sweet sound of the cello section under principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn.

The crowd — which packed the 2300-seat hall — wouldn’t let Järvi and the orchestra leave until they had played two encores. With those — and at least 15 minutes of clapping and cheering — the concert ended a half hour later.

The orchestra traveled on Friday by Shinkansen to Osaka, and it was challenging to get all 110 people in the tour party onboard in just 90 seconds before the doors closed. Today, it travels to the Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, which was built for the 10th anniversary of the disastrous Kobe earthquake in 1995. The long day will end on another bullet train to Yokohama.

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