How to spend your 90th birthday? For Jean Sibelius, it meant continued retirement. Indeed, the Finnish composer wrote virtually nothing for the last 30 years of his life. Not so George Walker, whose Sinfonia Number 4 (“Strands”) was commissioned and premiered by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra shortly after he turned 90 last year. Walker and his Sinfonia came to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Jan. 25 for its regional premiere and a warm reception by the Cincinnati audience at Music Hall.
The 15-minute work takes its name from its mosaic-like construction, having strands from a pair of spirituals woven into it (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan Roll”). Scored for large orchestra, including a raft of percussion, it is a muscular work, opening with a big statement by the full ensemble that quickly breaks down into its component parts. The prevailing mood is dramatic, with moments of respite and good humor, witness a particularly jaunty moment for pizzicato strings, percussion and winds. The “strands” do not make themselves obvious, since they are embedded in the texture, often handed off from one instrument or section to another, but the impression was one of great power and integrity. Walker basked in bravos from the crowd as he walked on to acknowledge their applause and share bows with the CSO and guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.
Walker shared the program with Brahms and Sibelius. Guest artist Gil Shaham did the honors in Brahms’ Violin Concerto with a performance noted for its sheer joy and collegial spirit. From the outset, it was clear that Shaham’s approach was chamber music in concept. At all times, he played with the orchestra, not against it, turning from Tortelier to CSO concertmaster Timothy Lees to assure close communication. Accordingly, soft moments spoke softly, and there was an intimacy about the work not often achieved. Shaham was everywhere eloquent, never more so than in the first movement cadenza, which in his hands, was as much about beautiful shaping as virtuosity.
Principal oboist Dwight Parry sang sweetly in the Adagio, setting the stage for Shaham who, with Tortelier’s sensitive accompaniment, touched the hearts of listeners throughout the hall. By contrast, the finale was a trip, with just the right lift to its gypsy-inspired theme. There was a sense of pent-up excitement near the end where Brahms repeats the theme with misplaced accents, and the movement surged to an exhilarating conclusion. Despite the crowd’s heartfelt ovation, there was no encore.
Tortelier led Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 with authority and conviction. His reading, completely from memory, was fully romantic, with close attention to detail and a vivid response from the CSO, which (a bit surprisingly, perhaps) had not performed it in two decades. Acting principal clarinetist Jonathan Gunn set the tone beautifully, conjuring Nordic vistas instantly with his soft-breathed, introductory solo. The movement’s complex lines were all attended to, building to a stirring climax and leaving a last ring of harp and string pizzicato in its wake. Tortelier, who conducts without a baton, shaped the Andante second movement with similar care, handling its yearning, Tchaikovskian theme with outspoken emotion, from full cry to its ever-so-gentle restatement at the end.
The Scherzo had the ring of a great big guitar at the outset, with its resonant strumming by the lower strings, while principal timpanist Patrick Schleker handled its motto theme with great presence and command. Tortelier -- whose whole-body conducting included more than one leap on the podium during the evening – drew considerable warmth from his players in the finale, with its lush strings and sometimes giddy rhythms. So much so, that the final, soft pizzicato almost seemed out of place.
The concert repeat s at 8 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 26) at Music Hall. Tickets begin at $10. Call (513) 381-3300 or order online at www.cincinnatisymphony.org