The Cincinnati Symphony Season Begins

CSO  What a magnificent orchestra!

I attended the first three CSO concerts of the season.  Each featured a concerto: Lang Lang playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1, Martin Frost playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and Emanuel Ax playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2.

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The rock star of the bunch was clearly Lang Lang, who played to a packed house for this all Beethoven affair.  He was also the biggest showboat: for example, leaning back away from the keyboard to admire the elegance of his right hand as it beautifully executed an intricately ornamented passage.  Since he did indeed play it with charm and grace, I am willing to indulge him.  He deserves his notoriety, and the enthusiastic applause he received.

This was in contrast to the understated, charming performance of the Chopin by Emanuel Ax.  Being fully engaged in the music making, Ax had no time for grand, superfluous gestures.  Whenever the piano was by itself, we had the divine intimacy of Chopin, whose writing for piano is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, Chopin’s orchestration is not so masterful.  I like the description by Berlioz quoted in the program notes: “[when they] play tutti, they cannot be heard, and one is tempted to say to them ‘Why don’t you play, for heavens sake!’  And when they accompany the piano, they only interfere with it so that the listener wants to cry out to them: ‘Be quiet, you bunglers, you are in the way!’.” Regardless, Emanuel Ax gave a beautiful performance, faithful to the spirit of composer.

Both pianists played, for encores, pieces that I had learned at one time.  Lang Lang played the “Alla Turca” finale of Mozart’s A Major Sonata, at a blazing speed.  He transformed this delightful, innocent rondo it into a technical showpiece, which I suppose is appropriate for an encore after a concerto.  It struck me as incredibly fast. Emanuel Ax played a Chopin waltz in A minor (Op. 34 no 2).  It was very understated for an encore, not technically brilliant at all, merely intimate and sublime. It struck me as incredibly beautiful.

Martin_Frost_Photo_Mats_Backer_06The soloist that I enjoyed the most was Martin Frost. He played the Mozart concerto very elegantly, fully expressing the character of the music.  We could see the influence of his ballet training in his demeanor on stage, but he never drew attention to himself at expense of the music.  For an encore, he played a showpiece, “Let’s Be Happy”, written for him by his brother.  It featured an improvised introduction which included some quotations from Stravinsky, some extended techniques, some traditional Klezmer, and lots of really fast notes.  Though lightly scored, each section of the strings got to share the spotlight, with extended passages where they were the ones playing really fast. I usually don’t enjoy listening to people show off their dazzling technique, but this piece was pure fun.  What a delight!

Louis Langree All three concerts were directed by Louis Langrée.  The first included the Beethoven Seventh Symphony,  which I had heard him direct before he was named Music Director.  His tempi are consistently brisk,  but the orchestra is good enough to play with expression and elegance even at that speed.  He takes the second movement too fast for my taste, but it is marked Allegretto, so his tempo is certainly justified. Langrée’s Beethoven does not have the weighty, Germanic scowl of some the famous portraits; this Beethoven is lively, alternately graceful or thrilling, but never stodgy.

The second concert featured John Adams’s Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson), a large, complex showcase for the orchestra.  I am a fan of Adams, and the orchestra played this difficult work magnificently.  The intricate masses of sound were beautifully balanced, and I was swept away by the large scale momentum of the piece.

Though this concert was not so well attended, the audience contained a number of people who were unfamiliar with the protocol: they clapped between movements.  This is a good thing: Langrée is succeeding in reaching out to a new audience.

The third concert ended with Debussy’s La Mer.  You might expect Langrée to be most at home with this French masterpiece, but  here, I was a little disappointed, especially with the first movement.  It just didn’t seem to flow.  The second movement, “Play of the Waves”, was better.  Langrée seems more comfortable with light and fast. However,  Debussy’s sea is sometimes menacing, and this sense of foreboding was missing.

I will not attend all the concerts in the season, and I certainly don’t expect to write about all the ones I manage to hear.  There are only so many ways that I can rhapsodize about the magnificent brass, the nimble winds, the precise percussion or the sumptuous strings.  Occasionally I will notice an imperfection, such as a clam from the horns, but when surrounded by so much spectacular beauty, it just reminds me that these are humans.  I enjoy being fully engaged in the live experience, listening to these masters of their craft.  It a privilege to be have such a fine orchestra in our town.

 

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May Festival 2014: Ode to Joy

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Friday night’s concert repeated a pattern I had seen before at the May Festival: a minor introductory work featuring well intentioned but clumsy fugues, followed by a good regional orchestra tackling the first three movements of a challenging masterwork, and ending with a spectacular, world class performance of the Ode to Joy.

In 2008, the introductory work was by Zeisl, an Austrian composer from the WWII era whose work has been largely forgotten. In 2014, it was Tchaikovsky’s Ode to Joy, a work written while he was a student at the conservatory and one that the composer wanted people to forget.

This was an interesting history lesson. You can hear hints of the genius that would later flourish, but these were separated by some pretty tedious passages. I became more engaged with the piece during the a cappella setting of “But if there be one to whom these blessings [the paradise of women’s friendship] are strange, in tears, in secret, retreat and be gone”. Given Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation and the culture of his time, it is not surprising that such lines inspired the young student to write something more personal, more meaningful, than the studied formality that constrains much of the rest of this work.

Frankly, I was dissatisfied with the performance of the the first three movements of the Beethoven. The same thing had happened in 2008: having recently heard wonderful concerts conducted by Paavo Jarvi, I wondered, upon hearing the opening section of the Ninth, “Is this the same orchestra?”. Friday night was similar. The thrilling opening movement should sizzle, and it simply didn’t. The ensemble was not always crisp, the horns were sometimes a bit insecure, the balance seemed haphazard, and the melodies lacked luster. The scherzo was better, but the slow movement was a bit dull. In sum, it was ok, but nothing to get excited about. Perhaps, during the busy preparations, these movements were underrehearsed; after all, the orchestra has performed this music often. Perhaps Conlon’s heart wasn’t in these merely instrumental pieces. In any event, this was not the work of a world class symphony orchestra.

Then, the final movement, the one with soloists and chorus, the one the May Festival is designed for, began. A new energy immediately appeared. The opening recitative in low strings had shape, intensity, unity of ensemble, subtle nuance. The conductor’s gestures seemed to shaped the sound. In short, the orchestra was suddenly great.

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I was pleased to see Rodrick Dixon substituting for the tenor who was sick, thus integrating the cast of soloists. The performance of the Dett in the earlier concert brought attention to the racial prejudice in the late 1930s. Our culture has made some progress in this area since then, and Dixon’s presence made that progress visible on stage during Beethoven testament to to the brotherhood of man.

The soloists sang beautifully, with power and grace. I was particularly impressed by the bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson. Often, basses with large, powerful voices sing with such a thick vibrato that it is difficult to follow the music. With Sigmundsson, I had no such problems. (On the following night, I had the pleasure of hearing his recital of Romantic German Lieder, accompanied masterfully by pianist Micheal Chertock: never have I heard a finer performance of this repertoire.)

However, the real star of Friday night’s concert was the May Festival Chorus, one of the best large chorus in the world. The Beethoven Ninth, as demanding as it may be, is right in their wheel house. Their opening “Freude” sent chills down my spine (it always does). The long high notes in the sopranos floated in the starry night. The final double fugue was clear and thrilling.

I found the last movement so packed with material, so exciting, and, though nearly a half hour long, so short! It was worth the wait.