Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Newcomer at the Cincinnati Symphony

Mary Ellen Hutton
Posted: February 20, 2010

Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra returned from Carnegie Hall (Feb. 15) to Music Hall this weekend to meet an old friend and a new one.

Guest artist Friday night at Music Hall (Feb. 19) was Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, who spent time on the road with the CSO in Europe a couple of seasons ago. Her vehicle this time was Brahms' Violin Concerto.

Newcomer on the program was Austrian composer Hans Rott, whose 1880 Symphony in E Major received its CSO premiere. Despite some tentative moments, it was an exhilarating ride over new terrain. With opening night under their belt, the orchestra is primed for a strong repeat tonight.

Jansen bowed in powerfully with the Brahms -- a little too powerfully for my taste. Though not lacking in beautiful moments, it had bruising ones, as well. It was as if Jansen were trying to fill every crevice in the huge hall -- which she did, though sometimes at the expense of tone quality and overall expressive impact.

The juxtaposition of Brahms and Rott was a clever touch, considering the history of the two men, who occupied different camps in musical Vienna in toward the end of the 19th century. Rott represented the music of the future -- later to morph into Mahler and his world-encompassing symphonies. Brahms was the conservative, upholding the legacy of Beethoven, and allegedly helped send Rott to his grave at age 25 with his criticism of the work.

The concert opened with Brahms. After a leisurely exposition by Järvi and the CSO, Jansen tore into it with a singeing opening statement that seemed more angry than assertive. She cooled down in the movement's more lyrical moments, where she projected a warm, more calibrated tone. Her cadenza brimmed with virtuosity, resulting in not a few broken bow hairs and a genuine need to re-tune before the second movement.

Principal oboist Dwight Parry -- who in the Prelude video shown before the concert, spoke of having the Concerto's most beautiful melody -- delivered it handsomely in the Adagio, where he and the woodwinds provided a heavenly introduction for the violin. Jansen's playing was lush and effusive here (give or take an iffy note in the stratosphere) and of such tonal robustness that one is tempted to believe she would make a violist of the first magnitude (the viola is the violin's larger sister).

The gypsy rondo finale was best matched to Jansen's super-heated approach, and she dug into the opening double stops with verve. She and Järvi enjoyed a little "lift" on the theme at one point, and there was a nice off-kilter feel where Brahms gives the theme a rhythmic re-alignment near the end.

Clocking in it at nearly an hour, Rott's Symphony comprised the second half of the concert. Interestingly, it was not the Cincinnati premiere of the work. That took place at on March 4, 1989 at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. That was also the world premiere. The CCM Philharmonia Orchestra led by Gerhard Samuel performed it at the International Mahler Festival in Paris on March 10, 1989 and on the world premiere recording (still in print and with a performance so accomplished one would not believe it was a conservatory orchestra).

Composed when he was 22, Rott's Symphony is a stunning work, obviously a goldmine for Mahler. They were classmates at the Vienna Conservatory and Mahler acknowledged his deep admiration for Rott's music. Just listen to the Austrian ländler that opens the second movement of Mahler's 1888 Symphony No. 1 and you know where he got it (Rott's third movement, almost note-for-note). There are myriad other similarities, too, including references to Mahler's Second Symphony (1894), whose "Day of Judgment" finale seems a fulfillment of what Rott suggests in his finale here.

But looking back through Mahler is unfair. What Rott opened up is a wonder unto itself. The Symphony opens with a trumpet solo -- delivered beautifully by CSO principal trumpeter Robert Sullivan -- against soft arpeggiated strings (Mahler opens his Symphony No. 5 similarly). Rott weaves this theme throughout the Symphony. It becomes marchlike in the development (another Mahlerian trait) and exhibits Rott's fondness for the triangle, which is omnipresent throughout the work.

The second movement is lush, romantic and anxious, looking back a bit to Schumann. It also reflects the influence of Rott's teacher, Anton Bruckner (Brahms' great rival). In Friday's performance, it grew ethereal at the end, with a soft chorale in the trumpets.

The scherzo third movement is Rott's masterpiece, comedy and tragedy co-mingled, with abundant brass (taxing for the CSO players), a "bird call" or two and again, lots of triangle (CSO percussionists David Fishlock and Bill Platt shared the honors here). It grew rollicking toward the end, with a final pile on of instrumental color and texture.

The finale opened with a furtive passage by bassoon and double basses (ominous?), then, lo and behold, out popped a cheerful little tune to alter the mood completely. The "big theme," a redemptive one announced warmly by the strings (again think Mahler Symphonies 1 and 2), undergoes considerable development by Rott who keeps it going at length for a giddy, bombastic effect. It ends softly, however, over string arpeggios, the way the Symphony begins. Järvi gave it a long-held, reflective conclusion.

Audience response to the (unfamiliar) Symphony was extremely positive. Tonight's 8 p.m. repeat at Music Hall is highly recommended. For tickets (beginning at $10), call (513) 381-3300, or order online at

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