Standing before them was an exceptional conductor, English-born Justin Brown in his CSO debut.
Guest artist was pianist Ingrid Fliter in an exceptional reading of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major.
Also on the program were Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Variations and the Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten, both exceptional works. The post-holiday crowd -- if you could call it that, since attendance was sparse -- was treated to an engrossing concert that connected in every way. As with most Saturday nights, tonight’s repeat, at 8 p.m. at Music Hall, can be expected to attract more listeners.
This year (2013) is the centennial of Britten’s birth and the composer’s only “symphony” served as a thoughtful tribute to the man and the musician. The circumstances of its composition were strange, to say the least. Britten was approached by the Empire of Japan in 1940 to compose a work in celebration of the 2,600th anniversary of its founding. In no position to refuse a commission – a pacifist, Britten had just emigrated from Britain to avoid military service – he produced a work of such seriousness that it was ultimately refused. The premiere was, in fact, by the New York Philharmonic led by British conductor John Barbirolli in 1941.
Ravel’s Concerto made a delightful contrast, snapping the audience to attention with its opening whip crack. It was back to the Jazz Age in the first movement, with delightfully bluesy inflections, much agile negotiation of the keyboard by Fliter, some ear-caressing interaction with principal harpist Gillian Benet, and thudding, scale-wise chords at the end.
Fliter’s reading of the Adagio was soft-breathed and serene, a spellbinder, given added impact by exquisite exchanges with English hornist Christopher Philpotts. Benjamin Freimuth on E-flat clarinet set the tone of the finale with his gleefully sassy solo, and the bassoons engaged in some rapid, formidable noodling vis à vis Fliter. All in all, it was a performance to relish, and the audience responded with an immediate standing ovation (alas, there was no encore).
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Variations (1941) was his last completed work, composed in the U.S., where he died in 1943. And a bright flare, it is (it is too bad that some members of the already small audience left during intermission). Its three movements, again played without a break, traverse life itself, from noontime to death, with allusions to the Latin “Dies irae” heard prominently in the finale. There are numerous references to the composer’s earlier music, making it a kind of look back at his life and work.
As in the Britten, Brown’s interpretive and communicative skills were well represented here, manifest in eloquent use of his left hand and scrupulous attention to detail. The CSO responded with eloquent playing. The first movement included a lovely, plaintive solo by saxophonist Bunte. The second movement was deviously waltz-like, and built to a fevered pitch. Brown brought the final movement to its ambivalent climax, which dissipated into dismay with two hollow strokes of timpani. The recovery, calm in the winds and strings though still perfused by the “Dies irae,” reached a conclusion of acceptance and peace (Rachmaninoff inscribed “Alleluia” at the end of the score).
Postscript: This concert demonstrated once again the urgency of re-seating Music Hall. With its fine acoustics and vintage beauty, it welcomes the musical experience, but with 3,400 seats to fill, fails to meet the vital intimacy requirement that concerts need. Listeners were scattered all over the hall, which made it even worse. People were aggregated in small clumps throughout the orchestra, balcony and center gallery (the left and right gallery sections were virtually empty). Another minus for the CSO is that patrons know there are always tickets available and therefore delay buying them -- much less subscribe. The CSO's Music Hall concerts (very rarely) sell out (the last time was in November for incoming music director Louis Langrée), and for certain large, blockbuster works, it can be an incomparable experience, especially with a full house. Most dates, however, fail to meet that test.
The just-concluded 75-year lease agreement between the city of Cincinnati ( owner of Music Hall) and the Music Hall Revitalization Company, Inc., a private organization founded to renovate it, promises to enhance resolution of the problem and others related to the 136-year-old structure. Details are to be announced soon. May their work proceed expeditiously.