Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Feb 17, 2010
What is the most important instrument in the orchestra?
Though not ordinarily thought of as such, the concert hall is an instrument, and no conductor or orchestra musician would deny its primacy to what they do (boards of directors may be a different story). The conductor and the instrumentalists "play" a hall, both individually and as a body, and how it responds to them is what endows a performance with the final measure of quality (or not).
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed in New York's Carnegie Hall Monday evening (Feb. 15), and under music director Paavo Järvi, they played it the way a great violinist would play a priceless old fiddle. Their program, a repeat of the one previewed in Music Hall in Cincinnati Feb. 12 and 13, comprised Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite," Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 with pianist Radu Lupu, Ricercare No. 2 from "The Musical Offering" by Bach, orchestrated by Webern, and Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra.
Järvi and the CSO are accustomed to performing in Cincinnati's Music Hall, an over-sized choral festival hall (3,516 seats) that has variable acoustics and requires extra effort by the players for projection and balance.
Their adjustment to Carnegie -- fine-tuned at an open rehearsal Monday morning that drew a large crowd -- was an exercise in luxury, especially for Järvi, whose frustrations with Music Hall are well known and justified.
"In this hall (Carnegie Hall), it doesn't need to be forced. Let it happen," he told the strings in "Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty" from Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite." Contra-bassoonist Jennifer Monroe as the Beast in "Conversations of Beauty and the Beast" understood and made the hall rattle effortlessly.
The chamber music-like manner in which Lupu exchanged night music (bird calls) with the CSO musicians in the second movement of the Bartok Third Piano Concerto was particularly gratifying. So also was the pianissimo statement of the theme by the double basses, harp and piano at the beginning of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski's Concerto, where, unlike Music Hall, every note could be heard.
New Yorkers came out in large numbers for the concert, which nearly filled Carnegie Hall. Taking into account the attendees at the open rehearsal, it was a sellout and then some. Many Cincinnatians came to New York for the concert despite the snow and the possibility of more bad weather to come (some experienced delays and cancellations trying to fly back to snowbound Cincinnati on Tuesday).
Järvi and the CSO opened with the Ravel in a performance of great subtlety and precision. (It was fun to watch Järvi cue harpist Gillian Benet Sella exactly when to dampen her strings at the end of "Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas" -- and to actually hear it.) "The Enchanted Garden" summed up the childlike wonder of the five nursery tales, ending in a splash of tone color that tingled the ear for a smooth, long held moment.
Interaction between Lupu and the CSO in the Bartok Concerto was easy and close, the result of a careful collaboration. They shared its folk-like moments with gusto and its near-mystical ones with hushed reverence (as in the Adagio religioso). Lupu truly made himself a part of the orchestra for this concerto, the last one that Bartok wrote before his death in New York City in 1945. Applause was long and enthusiastic, with Lupu and Järvi returning repeatedly to the stage (there was no encore).
Webern's pointillistic treatment of Bach's Ricercare profited naturally from the welcoming acoustics of Carnegie Hall, each instrument emerging vividly through the texture and building to a stately, affirmative end. It also provided the perfect prelude to Lutoslawski's rugged, post-war Concerto.
By comparison to his preview concerts in Cincinnati, Jarvi's performance of the Polish masterwork exuded even more electricity and excitement here. He led with super strength and inspiration, drawing virtuosic playing from the CSO.
The performance had everything: drama, feeling, color, transparency and -- the ultimate dividend of a great conductor/orchestra relationship -- trust. Ensemble was remarkable, at times breathtaking, as in the Capriccio where a glissando-like descent in the violins was met seamlessly by a soft, spiccato (bounced) passage in the violas. The contrasting Arioso with its fanfare-like trumpet introduction was both stately and stark.
The concluding Passacaglia, Toccato e Corale was the highpoint of the concert. Following the detailed, kaleidoscopic Passacaglia, the Toccata took off with the visceral intensity of an air raid. The Corale (Chorale) broke in like a ray of brassy sunshine amid the chaos.
The last bars were sheer fireworks, piccolo flickering on top. Järvi sent the final chord out into the hall with whiplash fury.
The audience did not want to let Järvi and the musicians go. They, stood, cheered and demanded repeated bows, one of them a solo bow for Järvi at the insistence of the orchestra.
With Järvi's departure from the Cincinnati Symphony just a little over a year off, Monday's Carnegie Hall concert was an occasion for reflection about what they (and he) are losing. He and the CSO players have forged a close and empathic relationship over the past nine seasons. This was their final concert outside Cincinnati and clearly they wanted to -- and did -- make it one of their best.