Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thibaudet, Järvi, CSO Magnifique

Mary Ellen Hutton
March 13, 2010

If you think you’ve heard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, think again.

As performed by guest artist Jean Yves Thibaudet with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Music Hall, it was a completely new experience.

This was Grieg with the cobwebs stripped away. Thibaudet made this clear in his dramatic opening statement -- a sweeping pronouncement cast in bold primary colors. It seemed calculated to pin his listeners’ ears to the wall – and it did. Järvi and the CSO followed with an exquisitely lyrical opening theme that “cushioned the blow" with sweetness. Yet there was nothing mushy or slushy here, just precise affect. Thibaudet’s power-charged cadenza was followed by a true “Paavo Järvi moment,” a closing statement unlike any I have ever heard in this Concerto. It was a blend of sonority that beggars words, an otherworldly serenity within a texture that “felt” like taffeta.

Thibaudet kept the contrast going in the Adagio. Jarvi’s lovely, romantic introduction was taken up by Thibaudet, who then gave a sudden surge to the movement’s contrasting theme. The final movement conjured trolls as well as Norwegian vistas, with associate principal flutist Jasmine Choi sounding the lustrous theme that intrudes on the happy goings-on. Soloist and conductor worked together with hair’s breadth precision throughout. At the end, the music rolled like a wave over Music Hall and earned hearty bravos, a standing ovation, a dozen roses for Thibaudet and a gentle encore, Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2.

There was much more on this enlightening program, which opened with 94-year-old Henri Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 1 and closed with the Symphony in C Major by Georges Bizet. Dutilleux’s 1951 Symphony was a CSO premiere. Composed when he was all of 17, Bizet’s only symphony has not been heard on CSO Music Hall concerts since 1989. In all, it made for a hugely engaging program, a trademark Järvi mix of the known-and-loved, the known-but-less-heard and a touch of spice.

To call Dutilleux a touch of spice does him no justice, however. His half-hour Symphony is full of ear-teasing invention and gave the concert much of its “Magnifique” billing. Dutilleux has had an inning in Cincinnati over the past two seasons. The visiting Juilliard String Quartet performed his string quartet “Ainsi la nuit” in February, 2009 to an enthusiastic reception. Both it and his Symphony No. 1 are masterpieces and assured of taking their place in the standard repertoire. In fact, anyone who may have been “frightened” by the little known Frenchman’s name on the program should take tonight or Sunday’s repeat as a golden opportunity to get to know him.

Järvi, who becomes music director of the Orchestre de Paris next season, has been much engaged with French repertoire recently, and rightly so. The CSO has profited, too, and they performed Dutilleux’ Symphony with considerable skill and conviction. The opening bars called to mind the Passacaglia of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, another CSO premiere performed by Järvi and the CSO at Music Hall and Carnegie Hall last month (a Passacaglia is a variations form utilizing a continuously repeated bass line).

Dutilleux opens his Symphony with a Passacaille and like Lutoslawski’s, it begins with the theme uttered softly pizzicato by the double basses. The composer’s coloristic arsenal is set off immediately with repetitions handed up through the orchestra, a large one with four percussionists, celesta, piano, harp and a full complement of strings, winds and brasses. Influences of Bartok, jazz and Stravinsky made themselves felt here, too, but the most transforming moment came after the big climax, where the music suddenly flew off into a kind of starry, ethereal space with glitters of harp, xylophone and celesta (welcome to the Milky Way).

The Scherzo, which followed without a break, took off on muted, scurrying strings, working up its own seismic tremors, interspersed with swirls of melody. The music ran up to a final, exhilarating major chord. The third movement, Intermezzo, seemed the most “French” of the four, with a wealth of tone color, long lines of melody and an occasional lounge-lizard feel. Heather MacPhail on celesta and Michael Chertock on piano shared an extraordinary moment together as it wound down at the end.

Perhaps most engrossing of all was the finale, a variations movement with subject matter derived from the Scherzo. It began with huge chords, then exposed myriad colors, kind of like stripping away layers of paint. But just as you felt you are “getting it,” it moved on to yet another take. You could detect echoes of Stravinsky (“Rite of Spring”), even a Messiaen-ic moment or two, but above all, you could bask in a wealth of instrumental beauty recalling the French legacy of Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy. It ended softly and graciously, with perfect decorum.

Bizet, composer of “Carmen,” doubtless the world’s most popular opera, wrote one of its most engaging symphonies, too, though it wasn’t discovered until 60 years after his death (at 37, before he knew how immortal “Carmen” would be). The CSO delivered a polished and spirited performance, with precise ensemble (kudos to the strings) and excellent solo work. Principal oboist Dwight Parry shone brightly in the Adagio, where Bizet’s gift for song is clearly evident.

Järvi has already recorded this work as part of an all-Bizet disc with the Orchestre de Paris. His affection for it was shown in this delightful performance by the CSO. The Allegro vivo was bright, cheerful and quite vivo indeed. The big string episode in the Adagio soared to the heights, with a cats’ paw transition to the movement’s gentle beginning. The interface between raucous and sweet was well drawn in the dance-like third movement, where the violas’ brawny drone opened the Trio section. The perpetual motion finale was just plain fun, simultaneously suave and a barrel of laughs. Järvi signed off with a characteristic body twist and flick of the baton.

Repeats are 8 p.m. tonight (Saturday) and 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall. Tickets are $10-$95 (discounts for students and seniors, 62 and over). Tonight is also “Pride Night” at the CSO in honor of the LGBT community, with special pricing and a backstage party immediately following the concert. There will be live music, food and drink and appearances by Thibaudet and Järvi. Tickets for the concert and the party are $50, $20 for students.

The March 14 Sunday matinee is shortened, with the Grieg Concerto and Dutilleux Symphony (no intermission) followed by an interactive “talk back” session by Järvi and Thibaudet moderated by Suzanne Bona of WGUC-FM. As part of the American Symphony Orchestra League’s “Feeding America” initiative, all tickets are $10 with a canned food donation to benefit the Freestore Foodbank.

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