Monday, March 29, 2010

Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony a Unity

Mary Ellen Hutton
March 27, 2010

Friday morning’s Cincinnati Symphony concert at Music Hall was a stunning demonstration of corporate virtuosity – as well it should be, with an all-orchestral program.

The star of the show was the CSO, and it shone all the brighter for the leader on the podium, music director Paavo Järvi. In their nine years together, Järvi and the CSO have become a unity. The empathy and communication between them is so profound that when he gives a signal, it is as if he is producing the sound himself. The orchestra is truly his instrument.

The program, entitled “Musical Seduction,” was well chosen to exemplify this. Not only did the music have to do with seduction in a literal, programmatic sense, but the way in which it was performed was -- to use an even stronger word -- ravishing.

Opening number was Mozart’s Overture to “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” which deals with intrigues in a Turkish harem. Paul Dukas’ tone poem “La Peri” concerns a Persian myth about a monarch who seeks the flower of immortality, only to find it on the bosom of a beautiful fairy whose charms ensure that he does not get it. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is based on “Tales of the Arabian Nights” in which a sultan’s wife forestalls her post-bridal execution by telling him stories -- a kind of literary seduction. Each of these colorful works, and the 100 musicians who performed them, embodied the splendor of the symphony orchestra and the power of music to enrich, ennoble and transform.

Järvi took Mozart’s Overture at a light-footed, lightning-fast clip. Textures were pellucid, ensemble was pinpoint, and percussionists Richard Jensen, Bill Platt and David Fishlock applied bass drum, cymbal and triangle expertly to give the music its delightful Turkish flavor.

Dukas’ “La Peri” (“The Fairy”) is a rare product of the famously self-critical composer who destroyed much of what he wrote. As its premiere in 1912, it was preceded by a two-minute Fanfare, which Järvi repeated here. It made a crisp, sonorous introduction, with the CSO brasses standing in a row behind the orchestra. “La Peri” itself had an eerie beginning, momentarily reminiscent of the opening of his famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It soon turned lush, with alluring melody and moments of surging passion. The Peri took wing (on Joan Voorhees’ agile piccolo?) and the music subsided into lamentation and a final, pale echo of brass, as the king succumbed to his mortality.

“Scheherazade” is one of the all-time favorites of the symphonic repertoire, as well as a showpiece for the solo violin. Concertmaster Timothy Lees, as the voice of Scheherazade, filled his lines with nuance and perfume, rendering an irresistible image of the woman who lived to be a legend instead of a one-night stand dispatched on the executioner’s block. "Sinbad’s Ship" in part one of the suite rocked almost theatrically (aided buoyantly by principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn).

Part two, “The Tale of Prince Kalendar,” began with Gillian Benet Sella channeling Jarvi’s gestures with uncanny precision. Everything about this movement was sexy, the CSO woodwinds with sinuous, cadenza-like moments (principal clarinetist Richard Hawley and principal bassoonist William Winstead) and neat handoffs, one to another. The CSO is blessed with wind players who, individually and as body, play with consummate skill and something even more rarely encountered -- even among the world’s big-name orchestras -- character. You find yourself hanging on every note.

Speaking of character, principal flutist Randolph Bowman’s ascending and descending scales in “The Young Prince and the Princess” conjured a lovely image and its reflection in the water. Lees’ cadenza conveyed both tenderness and passion, and principal hornist Elizabeth Freimuth floated a soft, golden solo at the end.

The final section, “Festival at Bagdad, The Sea and The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock,” brought the brasses strongly to the fore. The trumpets’ rapid staccato, twice repeated, opened onto a great plateau of sound, held to thrilling effect by Järvi. The trombones soared here, with the winds whistling above, for one of the big moments of the work.

Lees’ last solo was transcendentally beautiful, ending on a long-held, dream-like harmonic as the sultan succumbs to Scheherazade’s charms, her tales and finally, sleep.

The audience was carried away, rewarding Järvi and musicians with lusty bravos and sustained applause.

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