Monday, February 24, 2014

Järvi Leads Captivating CSO Concert
Mary Ellyn Hutton

It was a red-letter day for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Thursday. 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 Zhang Zuo.
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 curtain calls.
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 conclusion.
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

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