Saturday, February 13, 2010

CSO gives colorful preview of Carnegie Hall

Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer
February 13, 2010

The program that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will perform Monday night in New York’s Carnegie Hall seems calculated to showcase the best of what this orchestra can do.

On Friday night in Music Hall, music director Paavo Järvi previewed the concert with an electrifying performance of Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” an explosive work which calls for five percussionists, timpani, two harps and an expansive complement of brass. And in keeping with the Eastern European theme, the centerpiece was Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring one of the giants of the piano, Radu Lupu, as soloist.Järvi rounded out the evening with two orchestral gems: Five Nursery Songs from Ravel’s charming “Mother Goose” Suite, and J.S. Bach’s “Fuga Ricercare” from “The Musical Offering,” as orchestrated by Webern.

Lutoslawski’s concerto, which was written during the Stalinist years, is a powerful postwar statement. Like the music of other composers, such as Shostakovich, who suffered under oppressive regimes, this piece has a kind of fierce power all its own.

This is bold music, which calls upon virtuosity from every soloist in the orchestra – and they performed it brilliantly. From the pounding heartbeat opening in the timpani (Patrick Schleker), Järvi propelled the music with an underlying tautness and drive. The first movement died away in a delicate counterpoint of folk themes in winds, harp, violin and celesta.

The second, an exuberant scherzo, flew. Its hallmarks were clarity and precision, but above all, character. Every note was bursting with energy. That energized current flowed through the finale, a driving passacaglia, which climaxed in stunning trumpet fanfares and the entire orchestra in a virtuosic display. The chorale at its center was as amazing for its striking harmonies as for the transparency with which it was executed.

(Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony’s recording of this work for Telarc is one of the finest of his tenure.)

In the first half, Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor was a feat of a different kind. The Romanian artist Lupu, famed for winning both the Van Cliburn and Leeds Piano Competitions in the ‘60s, is a master of tone color and depth. He is perhaps better known for his Beethoven, but his Bartok was breathtaking.

Never have I heard such warmth in this concerto. He sat in a chair with a back, and projected phrases of enormous tonal beauty and artistry, often turning to communicate with the musicians.

Bartok’s Hungarian folk tunes were spirited, but never overly percussive, as may be the case. You couldn’t help but be moved by the deeply personal way he approached the hymn in the slow movement, an evocation of Beethoven, or the lightness of the piano’s “birdcalls” in dialogue with flutist Jasmine Choi.

Even the fugue which opens the finale was freely expressive. Järvi and the orchestra supported him wonderfully, and the orchestral sonority was rich in detail and sweeping color. The two musicians walked off the stage, arm in arm, and the pianist sat in the audience for the program’s second half.

Järvi opened with Ravel’s Five Nursery Songs, which unfolded as charming miniatures. This was music that glowed. He captured the innocent, pure quality of this music with phrasing that was tender and unrushed, from “Beauty and the Beast” (Richie Hawley, clarinet, and Jennifer Monroe, contrabassoon) to a scintillating “Empress of the Pagodas.”

Anton Webern transcribed J.S. Bach’s “Fuga Ricercare” for the orchestra by dividing its themes among instruments, sort of like pointillistic art. Even though the tempo sagged, it was an interesting exercise in orchestral color.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Music Hall, and 8 p.m. Monday in Carnegie Hall, New York. Tickets: 513-381-3300,

Carnegie Hall: 212-247-7800,

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