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Cincinnati's 2004 Musical Report Card

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 31, 2004 - 3:26:48 PM in commentary_2004

There were lots of A's on Cincinnati's classical music report card in 2004.

For anniversaries - lots of them from James Conlon's 25th as music director of the May Festival to the Cincinnati Chamber Music Society's 75th.

For the "angel" who wiped out the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's entire accumulated deficit in May (projected at $1.8 million through the end of the 2004 fiscal year).

For famed pianist Awadagin Pratt, named to the piano faculty at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in July, and the Azmari Quartet, who made their debut as string quartet-in-residence at Northern Kentucky University with Bartok, Beethoven and Brahms at Greaves Hall in September.

But above all for artistic excellence.

Music director Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra carried the Queen City banner all the way to Europe in the fall, including the CSO's debut in Paris Nov. 5 at the Theatre du Chatelet. Beginning Oct. 29 at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, Järvi, the CSO and pianist Helene Grimaud racked up more than mileage, with enthusiastic audiences and flattering reviews serving notice that the U.S. has more to offer than the traditional "big five" orchestras (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland). Stops in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Cologne, Mannheim, Enschede (The Netherlands), Paris, Madrid and Barcelona scored crucial points in Järvi's campaign to put the CSO on the world map.

Innovation and excellence marked the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra season also, with the debut of its "Twentieth-Century Classics" series in Fifth-Third Bank Theater at the Aronoff Center in January. CCO music director Mischa Santora, whose informal introductions enhance understanding as well as ambience in the intimate black box venue, scored an instantaneous hit with a pairing of Schoenberg's romantic "Verklärte Nacht" and revolutionary, atonal "Pierrot Lunaire." The two-concert series has been renewed this season.

Music director James R. Cassidy and the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performed the Cincinnati premiere of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's mystical minimalist Symphony No. 3 in Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in April. Soprano soloist was CCM graduate Deborah Selig. It was the perfect environment for the 1992 work (and all-time best-selling CD) and a coup of sorts for the KSO, since it is one of the requests most often received by area ensembles.

The angel who anted up for the CSO in May chose to remain anonymous, but in one swipe of the pen changed the orchestra's stock-market-ravaged bottom line from red to black. Orchestra leaders took steps to keep the books balanced by lopping off the CSO's popular "Bach and Beyond" chamber series at CCM in June and its family-friendly "Home for the Holidays" show at the Taft Theater in December. The CSO musicians agreed to a two-year wage freeze in their new contract ratified in September, and ticket prices were raised by an average of 25 percent this season.

The CSO audience got its money's worth and more with the area premiere of Sibelius' "Kullervo," a dramatic choral-orchestral symphony by the composer of "Finlandia" that brought the Estonian National Male Choir to Music Hall to open the CSO season in September. The choir, 2003 Grammy winners with Järvi and the Estonian National Orchestra for "Sibelius Cantatas," sang an encore in the lobby for the festive crowd. Järvi and the CSO also scored during the year with Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," Mahler's Symphony No. 4, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and previewing their European tour, Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

Conlon showed what can be achieved through a long-term relationship with an organization by celebrating his self-described "long term love affair" with the May Festival with Mahler's No. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand") May 29 at Music Hall. Opera superstars Deborah Voigt and James Morris enhanced the festival with excerpts from Wagner's "Die Walküre" and "Die Meistersinger," and Conlon led the festival's first "Messiah" (Handel) in 17 years. Members of the May Festival Chorus toasted chorus director Robert Porco on his 15-year association with the May Festival by commissioning a work in his honor, Stephen Paulus' "All Things are Passing," premiered May 23 at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington.

CCM's annual new music festival, "Music 2004," drew internationally known composers Chen Yi, Kaija Saariaho and Frederic Rzewski to Cincinnati in June. For nine days, listeners attended master classes and concerts of their works and those of promising young composers, all free of charge. Always innovative CCM Opera presented a dark, edgy "Hansel and Gretel" at Corbett Auditorium in May and Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," updated to 1960s, suburbia in Patricia Corbett Theater in February.

Cincinnati Opera demonstrated its excellence in June with productions poles apart at Music Hall. Donizetti's 1840 "Daughter of the Regiment" was a lovely-to-look-at, bel canto delight featuring soprano Celena Shafer as the feisty Marie. The contemporary double bill of Viktor Ullmann's allegorical "The Emperor of Atlantis" and Peter Bengtson's masterful psychodrama "The Maids," both directed by opera artistic director Nicholas Muni, provided a riveting, mind-bending contrast.

The opera moved to its new $3.8 million home in the north wing of Music Hall in October. The Corbett Opera Center will be the locus of all the opera's activities, including a ticket office and reception area, administrative offices and a rehearsal/performance space behind the spectacular rose window on the fourth floor. Dedication ceremonies take place Jan. 13.

Opera managing director Patricia K. Beggs was promoted to general director in December. She picks up the reins from Muni, who resigned in October to pursue his burgeoning career as a stage director (he remains artistic consultant until August). Beggs will oversee all aspects of the company but will share artistic responsibilities with an artistic director, to be appointed.

The Vocal Arts Ensemble observed its 25th anniversary in October with "Let My People Go," a multi-media collaboration with the newly-opened Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati and Central State University Chorus at the URFC in October.

And the Cincinnati Chamber Music Society popped the cork on its 75th year with violinist (and former CCM student) Christian Tetzlaff's traversal of the complete partitas and sonatas for unaccompanied violin at Memorial Hall in October. Tetzlaff's amazing performance - from memory in a single concert with a break for dinner - earns this reviewer's vote as the concert of the year.