by Mary Ellyn Hutton
May 15, 2011
Paavo Järvi knows how to say goodbye -- and he did so powerfully with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Music Hall.
Never, in fact, have I heard such an emotionally charged performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The CSO music director – soon to be music director laureate – poured every fiber of his being into Mahler’s complex score and the musicians played their hearts out for him.
It was a near-sellout crowd for Järvi’s final concert as CSO music director (repeat is 8 p.m. tonight, but tickets are scarce). The audience gave him their hearts, too, standing for Järvi at the beginning of the concert -- before a note was played -- and at the end in a unanimous demonstration of appreciation for his ten years of stewardship in Cincinnati.
Appropriately, there was a fanfare, “Fireflower,” by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, a world premiere composed for the occasion. There was a guest artist, famed pianist Awadagin Pratt, artist-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, in the North American premiere of Tüür’s Piano Concerto. And there was the Mahler, a work given its American premiere by the CSO in 1905. It was a configuration uniquely appropriate for Järvi’s farewell concert.
Just short of four minutes, “Fireflower” is a “bouquet to Paavo,” writes Tüür in his program note. The image of blossoms as flames fit the composer’s incandescent palette, a full orchestra lit by percussion, flickering winds and brilliant brasses. It built to a plateau of joy, with catchy rhythms in the strings, before ending on a “perfect” interval, a soft open fifth by solo winds. This is symbolic, says Tüür, of the “perfect chemistry” between the CSO and Järvi and hopes for their future collaboration.
Premiered in 2006 by pianist Thomas Larcher and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra under Järvi (also music director in Frankfurt), Tüür’s Concerto exhibits the same limitless sonic imagination as “Fireflower.” Pratt was literally all over the keys, from bottom to top of the piano’s range, as he interacted with the orchestra. Composed without a break, the music unfolds in waves of color, like light bent through a prism, or bolts of multi-colored fabric.
Pratt began with an emphatic low note on the piano, which seemed to bleed into the double basses and timpani, like ink spreading through the water. As the piano rose into a higher register, the brasses blew through their instruments, giving the texture an unforgettable “open” effect.
As the instrumental voices accumulated, the piano kept weaving among them, often with difficult repeated note figures, and there was considerable rhythmic interaction with the strings. Colors were vivid, Tüür creating an almost pitch black sonority at one point, utilizing low brasses and piano. As the work progressed, the piano came increasingly to the fore, and there was a long, almost rhapsodic piano solo, touchingly conveyed by Pratt.
The wave-like motion grew turbulent, almost violent midway in the 25-minute piece, and one could hear that repeated note motif being passed around the orchestra (timpani, xylophone). A little jazz riff, beginning in the double basses, led into somewhat calmer waters. There was a brief, lullaby-like interlude by the piano over a sustained bass note before the waves begin to smooth out toward the end. Again, the brasses blew through their instruments. It was like a cool breeze after a storm, or a safe harbor at last.
“Fireflower” and the Piano Concerto are the eighth and ninth works by Tüür to be introduced to Cincinnati audiences by his fellow Estonian Järvi. It is a rich legacy and one well suited for a virtuoso orchestra like the CSO. Tüür, who is in town for this weekend’s concerts, is without doubt one of today’s greatest sonic artists, in a direct line from Berlioz, Mahler and such 20th-century masters as Stravinsky and Edgar Varese. Don’t take your eye off him, Cincinnati.
There are no words to do justice to Järvi’s performance of the Mahler Fifth Symphony. Everything about it was ultra expressive -- like a life lived to the fullest. Indeed, it is that kind of path Mahler marked out here, passing from funereal sorrow to struggle, abandon, reverie and finally jubilation, all garbed in the multi-colors of the romantic symphony orchestra. (More than once, one was reminded that Tüür follows in Mahler’s footsteps by stretching the bounds and possibilities of instrumental color.)
How gently the strings entered after the brasses (led by principal trumpeter Robert Sullivan) announced the somber funeral march. And how suddenly anguish broke in. There would be no holds barred in this performance, Järvi seemed to be saying.
The movement that followed (marked Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz, "Violently agitated, with the greatest vehemence") upped the ante, with its shrieking strings, crackling trumpets and what sounded like a swoon before the cellos entered with their sorrow-laden theme. This turbulent movement experienced wrenching ups and downs in Jarvi’s hands (and a very ill-timed cough from the audience as it came to its plaintive end).
Principal French hornist Elizabeth Freimuth came to the front of the stage for the huge scherzo, where she gave her section a thrilling stereophonic effect, her playing carefully dovetailed with theirs. The clarinets, oboes and horns often had their bells in the air as they conveyed the movement's wildly shifting emotions. Life in all its dimensions was on display -- in the cackling clarinets, clucking oboes, slurpy violins and general melee, and Järvi was in the thick of it, calling all the shots.
The famous Adagietto (compare Barber’s Adagio for Strings) was very slow, as the composer indicated. Supposedly written as a love song for Mahler’s wife Alma, it had a tragic feel, beginning with soft, gauzy strings and growing achingly expressive. Harpist Gillian Benet Sella provided a current of warmth on the halting main theme, which seemed to be reaching for something unattainably precious.
The horn call announcing the finale followed immediately, like a new day dawning. Life triumphed over adversity here, jocularly at times, and Järvi reveled in it, sometimes dancing on the podium. Never have deceptive cadences (unexpected resolutions of the harmony) been so deceptive. The movement climaxed into a huge peroration, and there was a shattering conclusion a la Järvi.
Audience response was immediate and ecstatic, with everyone on their feet demanding repeated bows. Several of them were solo bows by Järvi -- at the players’ insistence since they refused to come to their feet when prompted.
Could an encore top this? Well, no, but that was not the point. Järvi obliged with one of his trademark pieces, Sibelius’ “Valse Triste.” Dynamic contrasts were vivid and extreme – to near inaudibility at one point, capped by Jarvi’s own voice at another – and there was a feeling at the end, as the solo violins trailed off, that this parting by conductor and musicians is truly bittersweet.
Järvi spoke touchingly in the foyer afterwards, where there was a champagne toast and an after-party free to ticketholders (to be repeated tonight). He signed CDs for a line that trailed several times around the lobby.