Mary Ellyn Hutton
It was a red-letter day for the Cincinnati Symphony
Making her debut at the evening concert – first of three
this weekend at Music Hall -- was a star of the future, 24-year-old pianist
Returning to the orchestra to lead the Symphony No. 4 by
Gustav Mahler was music director laureate Paavo Järvi. Appearing with the CSO for
only the second time since he stepped down as music director in 2011, Järvi
picked up the baton as if he had never left, and the musicians played their
best for him.
(If you missed it,
the concert repeats Saturday and Sunday at Music Hall.)
A native of China, Zhang Zuo captivated her audience from
her first entrance in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn. It was a
breathtaking display of virtuosity, and there was a laser-sharp quality about
her playing that made every note project with utmost clarity. Her musicianship
was everywhere evident, never more so than in the lovely Andante, where she
shared moments of sheer beauty with the CSO cellos. Her fingers flew over the keys
in the sparkling finale in another brilliant display.
Ensemble with the CSO was impeccable throughout the Concerto,
a task accomplished with pinpoint precision by Järvi on the podium. It was a
performance that dazzled and moved the audience, eliciting several enthusiastic
Mahler’s Fourth, shortest of his nine symphonies at just
under an hour, is also known as his most optimistic. Indeed, it is hard to find
moments of darkness or doubt, though the composer feigns it in the second
movement, with its image of death playing the violin. The work concludes with a
song about the joys of heaven. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy was soloist, stepping
in for Isabel Bayrakdarian, who canceled because of illness.
The mood was cheerful and bright from the opening of the
first movement, with its touches of sleigh bells and gently arching principal
theme. The clarinets and oboes held their bells in the air now and then to
inject greater color into the texture (as Mahler specified). All of Järvi’s
signature touches were there: subtle dynamic contrasts over a wide range and heightened
thematic and motivic characterization, as at the conclusion of the first
movement, where he lingered softly and deliciously over a snatch of the main
theme before heading into the pell mell, fortissimo
Playing a violin tuned a whole step higher than usual, concertmaster
Timothy Lees gave his solos a positively devilish cast in the scherzo second
movement. Järvi and the CSO offered a feast of delectable Mahlerian flavor,
as well. The serene Adagio unfolded over a pizzicato (plucked) bass
accompaniment, reaching an impassioned climax (another hint of darkness?)
before coming to a tender, super-soft conclusion, laced with harp.
The final movement, a setting of the poem “Das Himmlische Leben” (“Heavenly Life”)
from the folk collection “Das Knaben
Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”), is meant to evoke heaven itself, with
its playful verses about food, drink and dance in the angelic sphere. Murphy
gave it just the right tone and inflection, succeeding stanzas introduced by a
colorful “frolic” in the CSO, all within a wonderfully childlike frame of
reference. The concluding verses about angelic music seemed to be fully
personified by the ensemble onstage.
Järvi opened the concert with the Love Scene from Hector
Berlioz’ “Romeo and Juliet.” It was a warmly emotive performance (again, the cellos
sang with particular beauty), exhibiting keenly sensitive dynamic gradations
and a range of feeling, from tenderness to passion.
This is one of the season’s finest concerts to date,
definitely not-to-miss. Repeats are 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at Music
Hall. Tickets begin at $12 at (513) 381-3300, or order online at www.cincinnatisymphony.org.