If you missed him last night, you have another chance to hear Spanish guest conductor Juanjo Mena lead the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (and continue its search for a music director to succeed Paavo Järvi). The concert is at 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall and -- if only to hear Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" Suites No. 1 and 2 -- should not be missed.
Mena, 46, a native of Vitoria in Spain's Basque Country, led the CSO and May Festival Chorus in a performance, to use contemporary parlance, "to die for." Certainly, it will be remembered in Cincinnati circles for a long time.
The concert, which originally featured the popular ensemble eighth blackbird (who cancelled on short notice for personal reasons), was also distinguished by the CSO premiere of James Lee III's "Sukkot through Orion's Nebula." It was the second performance of the work, a Sphinx Consortium commission which had its world premiere in October by the New World Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas. Replacing eighth blackbird was Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, and if someone offers you Mozart, who's to complain?
Mena, newly appointed principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, is a distinctive conductor. He sculpts phrases with sweeping gestures of his left hand, yet often conducts very little at all. He uses his face a lot and could take the prize for most beatific expression. He kept the scores of the Mozart and Ravel on the podium, flipping pages now and then, though obviously he had the music entirely in his head. Most of all, there was a feeling of close cooperation between him and the musicians, as if they were leading one another.
The "Daphnis et Chloe" Suites, extracted from Ravel's 1912 ballet for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in Paris, are not often heard together, or for that matter with chorus. (Since the chorus sings wordlessly, it can be covered by instrumentation.) Suite No. 2 is by far the most popular of the two and was recorded by the CSO under Järvi in 2004, without chorus. Former music director Jesus Lopez-Cobos led both Suites with the CSO in 2000, also without chorus.
The 115-voice May Festival Chorus, prepared by director of choruses Robert Porco, made a big difference, and with the corporate virtuosity of the CSO to work with, Mena had all the tools he needed.
Listeners were transported to another world in the opening "Nocturne" of Suite No. 1, which rose seemingly from nowhere in the CSO double basses and took form in shapely solos by flutist Randolph Bowman, French hornist Thomas Sherwood and clarinetist Jonathan Gunn. Adding to the atmosphere was wind machine (it took five percussionists throughout the work to produce Ravel's abundant color).
There was a big cut off after "War Dance" (pirates afoot) and it was into Suite No. 2 and the familiar "Daybreak." Mena did not overdo the first climax here, shaping it carefully and saving the real shivers for the repeat. The flute section, led by Bowman in breath-taking fashion, covered itself with glory, and the music fairly crackled into the "General Dance" (Pan has saved Chloe from the pirates). There were convulsions of sound as, joined in full voice by the Chorus, the music soared to its Dionysian conclusion.
James Lee's 12-minute "Sukkot through Orion's Nebula" has a family relationship with Ravel's "Daphnis" in its mood painting and skillful use of a similarly large, percussion-enriched orchestra. It is meant to evoke the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot at the time of the coming of the Messiah (through the constellation of Orion, as predicted in the Hebrew Bible). The brass fanfares at the beginning recalled the shofar (ram's horn sounded on the Jewish high holy days). The astronomical/biblical theme continued as harp and soft brass moved into the mid-section, which gleamed with strings and percussion and built in intensity. Elements of the fanfare returned with the full orchestra in an energetic, muscular push to the end. Lee, who serves on the faculty of Morgan State University in Baltimore, was present to take a well-deserved bow.
Mozart's G Minor Symphony (No.40) acted as a sort of a balm between the hugely conceived Ravel and Lee, with their post-romantic kinship. The emphasis was on grace, even comfort, and was well-received by the crowd.
Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall. Tickets begin at $10 at (513) 381-3300, or visit www.cincinnatisymphony.org