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CSO Turns Heads in Europe

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 20, 2004 - 11:16:06 PM in news_2004

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Nov. 19, 2004)

Cincinnati Symphony librarian Mary Judge is back home with her five-year-old twins Isabelle and Madeline.

The girls, all squeals and smiles, met their mother at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International airport Nov. 11, along with friends and families of 117 other CSO musicians and staff returning from a grueling two-week tour of Europe.

Led by music director Paavo Järvi, the orchestra and pianist Helene Grimaud (tour guest artist) performed in some of the most important venues in Europe, including Vienna’s Konzerthaus, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, the Cologne Philharmonie, Paris’ historic Theatre du Chatelet and the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid. It was the CSO’s debut in Paris and their first European tour with Järvi, who has led them on tours of Japan, the U.S. East Coast and Florida since becoming CSO music director in 2001.

Crowds were enthusiastic at every stop and if applause meters count, the CSO was over the top.

The musicians felt they had done some of their best playing. "Musically, it was the best tour we have ever had," said French hornist Duane Dugger, a CSO member since 1992.

How do you measure success after the orchestra is home again and the notes have died away?

Audience turnout is one way. Audience reaction is another. Reviews are another.

Several venues were completely sold out, including Vienna, Paris, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Cologne and Madrid. The others were nearly full. There were advance stories and interviews with print and broadcast media at every stop, including an interview of Järvi in The Financial Times, Europe’s Wall Street Journal.

Response was warm everywhere, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In Paris, bravos erupted at the conclusion of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and the crowd did not want to let them go (Järvi held it to one encore, Sibelius’ "Valse Triste," because nothing tops Mahler’s Fifth, he said).

"This is only the second time I have ever seen this at a concert in Paris," former Sony recording engineer Kevin Boutote told CSO bassist Matthew Zory.

Standing ovations are rare in Europe, but it happened in Cologne and Enschede, a small town in The Netherlands on the German border.

Of the nine cities on the tour, there were reviews in eight (so far), a total of 17 by the CSO’s count. They range from glowing in Cologne and Frankfurt to downright vicious in Stuttgart.

A sample of comments from abroad:

Vienna Konzerthaus, Concert Oct. 29.

  • Austrian Press Agency, Oct. 30: Although "too heavy" accompanying Helene Grimaud in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, "the U.S. musicians rehabilitated themselves with an exceptional, independent and interesting rendition of this enormous orchestral work (Mahler Fifth Symphony). The discipline and handcrafted brilliance of the orchestra, especially the beautiful sound of the brass and high strings, seemed to qualify without doubt the risky interpretation of the score. The guests from America presented to the Vienna public a new and unusual look at the many details of a Mahler symphony."

  • Die Presse, Nov. 2: "The soloist, Helene Grimaud, was convincing less through her clear, virtuosic playing than through musical whimsy, which occurred above all in the charming Intermezzo of the second movement. The famous Adagietto from Mahler’s C Minor Symphony proceeded tactfully, without kitsch. The musicians didn’t grasp the chance to thoroughly sense the discharged sonorities of late romanticism. The precise dynamic gesticulations of Järvi were at times, without effect; however, the enthusiasm of the musicians was brought forth."

Frankfurt Alte Oper, Concert Oct. 30.

  • Frankfurt Rundschau, Nov. 1: The reviewer praised Järvi’s accompaniment in the Beethoven Concerto and his "excellent rhythm" in the Nielsen "Maskarade" Overture. Of the Dvorak Seven, he wrote: "The orchestra shone with deep colors like a well-oiled machine, which punched out each sound element and let the bohemian master ring out two numbers before his magic nine from the new world (referring to Dvorak’s famous "New World" Symphony No. 9)."

Stuttgart Liederhalle, Concert Oct. 31.

  • Stuttgarter Zeitung, Nov. 3: After "a momentum-filled exclamation mark with Carl Nielsen’s ‘Maskarade’ Overture" and "a promising beginning" with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, "the concert flattened," the reviewer wrote. "Dvorak’s Seventh showed the limits of the orchestra, which cannot be ranked among the top American orchestras: flat strings, weak winds. Paavo Järvi never succeeded in getting the music flowing: no symphonic breath, many tones, but hardly an idea of what they could mean."

  • Stuttgarter Nachrichten, Nov. 2: The reviewer described the CSO as "a precisely functioning orchestra machine with a direct, not very poetic sound, wiry high strings, somewhat neutral sounding woodwinds and velvety sounding brass." Nielsen’s "Maskarade" Overture "shouted for joy." Regarding Dvorak’s "Brahms-like" Seventh Symphony: "Järvi kept the sound lean and no-nonsense, but also demonstrated that the pianos and pianissimos are more common with Dvorak than is customary. The rhythm was springy, every change in tempo happened naturally. The finale of the symphony and also the encore, Sibelius’ ‘Valse Triste,’ were full of intensity."

Cologne Philharmonie, Concert Nov. 2.

  • Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, Nov. 4: (Of the Mahler Fifth Symphony) "With remarkable poise and  precise impact, Järvi led his orchestra through all the heights and depths, across all the breaks and contradictions of the more than one-hour-long Symphony. No extreme was left out, from pained exclamations to the infinite quietness of the Adagietto, from the eerie, death-seeking movement of the Scherzo to the two-faced Finale, which goes towards the abyss in a mask of joy. Despite this seeming chaos, the wonderfully balanced overall sound of the orchestra and the individual instrument groups was never called into question. The mighty applause motivated the orchestra to give an encore. After such excitement, Sibelius’ ‘Valse Triste’ felt like healing balsam."

Frankfurt Alte Oper, Concert Nov. 3.

  • Frankfurt Rundschau, Nov. 5: "Scarcely was the final note played than Helene Grimaud stood. She pressed her conductor’s hand firmly, then her concertmaster’s, thanking him for something that is not had every day: a deluxe accompaniment, a finely shaped orchestra part that sometimes even made the listeners forget the soloist. Paavo Järvi delivered an incredible Tutti with feathered colors in the Intermezzo and extreme attention to detail. If one did not envy Helene Grimaud for her finger agility, one would envy her for this orchestra at her back." The reviewer utilized Cincinnati’s German heritage and Ohio’s new "swing state" identity to comment on the Mahler Five: "German orchestra tradition paired with that ‘swing’ that goes against the flow were the best prerequisite. The result was a truly amazing sound that was always transparent and dynamically extremely detailed. Paavo Järvi will not so quickly forget this evening, but he is not the only one. With his Cincinnati Orchestra, he has left something to hear."

Paris Theatre du Chatelet, Concert Nov. 5.

  • Le Figaro, Nov. 8: "Järvi is already well known in Paris and one always admired his qualities of precision and authority: a head who knows what it wants and has the means of carrying it out." However, the reviewer criticized Järvi’s tendency to control at the expense of letting the ensemble "breathe" and "move." Of the CSO, he wrote: "Little known in Europe, the symphony orchestra of Cincinnati does not have a sound personality which jumps to the ears: very American, the brass are brilliant to gaudiness, the woodwinds heterogeneous."

Barcelona Palau de la Musica Catalana, Concert Nov. 10:

  • La Vanguardia, Nov. 12: "The synthesis of the art of the stunningly beautiful Grimaud shone through in the Andante of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, the absolute highlight of a great performance, also thanks to the secure and compact sound of the Cincinnati Symphony. Under the watchful direction of Paavo Järvi, the North American orchestra responded with clockwork-like precision, which at the beginning seemed even excessive. Järvi imparted good humor and the confidence of someone completely secure in front of his musicians to sweeten so much rigor. The seldom played Sibelius 5th Symphony proved that the sound of American orchestras has surpassed previous labels, and the legendary solidity of the brass section has spilled over to other sections of the orchestra. We discovered the power of the viola and cello sections as well as an excellent woodwind section. Järvi knew how to imprint the adequate amount of pathos on an uncomfortable score. This was another night on which North American musicians demonstrated that on the other side of the Atlantic, despite a White House with values that don’t show much inclination towards the arts and culture, not all is lost."