Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra thrills New York's Carnegie Hall

Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer
February 16, 2010

NEW YORK -- The last time the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played Carnegie Hall in 2005, the city was digging out of a record 14-inch blizzard. This time, the orchestra arrived between snowstorms in the Ohio Valley and New York in time for its Monday night concert in the fabled hall. And despite the threatening weather, the New Yorkers came, and they cheered.

Carnegie Hall was nearly full to the top of its upper balcony in the 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium, which is named for the violinist Isaac Stern who saved it from demolition 50 years ago.

For the Cincinnati Symphony’s 47th appearance since 1917, music director Paavo Järvi led the orchestra in the ambitious program it performed in last weekend’s Music Hall concerts – four numbers, spanning from Ravel’s charming “Mother Goose” Suite to a pull-out-the-stops performance of Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra. For the centerpiece, the distinguished Romanian pianist Radu Lupu again joined the orchestra in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening came at the end, when Järvi gave a bow to principal percussionist William Platt. Platt, who joined in 1971, performed his last concert in Carnegie Hall before he retires at the end of this season.

There is something awe-inspiring about playing on Carnegie Hall’s stage, where the world’s greatest artists and orchestras have played. Part of its aura has to do with its extraordinarily warm sound and fine acoustics.

The orchestra’s sound in the Five Nursery Songs from Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, which opened the program, glowed in this space. Järvi captured the childlike quality of the miniatures, and no one in the full house seemed to breathe. Orchestral soloists performed expressively, and the pieces had a more relaxed, expansive quality than they had had in Music Hall. The atmosphere and sonority of “The Enchanted Garden” was magical.

There could not have been more of a contrast than Lutoslawski’s concerto, a powerful postwar work, written during the Stalinist years, which concluded the concert. Visually, the scene was impressive, with the full orchestra taking up every inch of the stage, including five percussionists and timpani, keyboards, two harps and the brass arrayed across the back.

Järvi’s view was more fiercely driven than that previously heard. Patrick Schleker’s opening drumbeats in the timpani underscored the momentum and rhythmic drive which never let up, and the violins dug into their strings.

The musicians played with razor-sharp precision, but the performance was equally riveting for its delicate moments, such as the charming folk themes that shimmered at the end of the first movement. The scherzo was light and quick, with virtuosic runs that seemed to ricochet through the orchestra like bolts of lightning.

When the basses began the passacaglia which opens the finale, no one in the hall moved. Järvi built the movement to cataclysmic peaks and back again, galvanizing his players with an undercurrent of tension never far beneath the surface. The result was electrifying. It was enthralling to witness the range of color and timbre that was possible here, from staccato fanfares in the trumpets to the serene chorale, which filled Carnegie Hall with great, organ-like sound. The musicians performed superbly, as the work grew to a brilliant, brass-filled summation.

The audience cheered at the cutoff, and the New Yorkers brought Järvi back for several bows. There was no encore.

In the first half, Lupu joined the orchestra again for Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor. Lupu, a sort of living legend, is an artist of depth and brilliant artistry. As in Cincinnati, he sat at the piano in a chair with a back, and summoned a magnificent range of tone color and beauty of phrasing. The slow movement’s hymn was songful, beautifully voiced and exquisite for its purity and deep feeling. The orchestra collaborated magnificently and supported him with red-blooded sound as he navigated the finale’s formidable octave passages and virtuosities. The audience gave him warm ovations, and he and Järvi walked off the stage, arm in arm.

The evening also included J.S. Bach’s Ricercare from “The Musical Offering,” arranged by Anton Webern, who fragmented the theme through various instruments, like a pointillistic painting. Järvi never allowed it to become clinical, but he communicated warmth.

Seen in the crowd were at least 60 symphony board members and sponsors from US Bank, former WGUC producer/announcer Naomi Lewin, who had been promoting the concert on her show on WQXR in New York, composer Charles Coleman (who is at work on a fanfare for the CSO for next season), New York Pops conductor and Cincinnati Pops associate conductor Steven Reineke and Liang Wang, principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic, formerly with the CSO, and many other fans and musicians with ties to Cincinnati.

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