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CSO in Japan's "Big Apple"

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 12, 2003 - 12:23:40 PM in reviews_2003

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Nov. 11, 2003)

Tokyo's splendid Suntory Hall rang with the sounds of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Sunday evening.  It was the climax so far of the CSO's seven-city, eight-concert tour of Japan, their  first international tour with music director Paavo Järvi.

It seemed like the ovation would never end. There were shouts and bravos and even after four encores, audience members kept on clapping, many with their hands over their heads (the Japanese equivalent of a standing ovation). After numerous bows, Järvi cheerfully waved "That's all folks!" and led the musicians off the stage.

It was the third bite in as many days of Japan's Big Apple (Tokyo's 12.24 million megalopolis). The CSO performed in Mito north of Tokyo Friday and across the bay in Yokohama Saturday.

The orchestra flew to Tokyo Friday from the northern island of Hokkaido, where the musicians played the first concert on their 11-day tour Thursday in Sapporo. They immediately boarded a bus at Tokyo's Haneda airport for the two-hour drive to Mito, a "country" town famous for its gardens and springtime cherry blossoms.

Representatives of the Ibaraki Prefectural Cultural Center and Ibaraki Cultural Foundation welcomed the orchestra by inviting Järvi to take part in a holiday lighting ceremony outside the concert hall. Donning white gloves, Järvi flipped the switch and 120,000 lights glowed across the façade. A quartet of CSO trumpeters played a fanfare.

The concert, in Ibaraki Prefectural Hall, included Brahms' Violin Concerto with Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanai, Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" and Sibelius' "Finlandia." Suwanai's playing was buoyant, even gutsy, in the gypsy rondo of the Brahms, while "March to the Scaffold" from the Berlioz bristled with tightly coiled energy.

The audience demanded three encores (Berlioz's "Rakoczy March," Sibelius' "Valse Triste" and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5) and might have heard another one (Gershwin's "Walkin' the Dog") if a piano and CSO pianist Michael Chertock had been on the scene.

The concert in Yokohama, Japan's largest port city across the 2,800-foot Yokohama Bay Bridge, was the same scene played out in Yokohama's impressive new Minato Mirai Concert Hall. The program recapped the Mito concert except for the Berlioz, which was replaced by Sibelius' Symphony No. 2.

It was an extraordinary performance, perhaps the finest this reviewer has ever heard of the work, filled with chocolatey strings and pulse-quickening brasses. Järvi poured tragedy into the Andante, with searing extremes of emotion.

It is rare, but once in a great while music takes on a seemingly impossible, extra-musical quality. Can a chord sound empty? The CSO sounded just that way before the sharp, angry pizzicato that ended the movement. The Yokohamans showed their approval by lining up 75-strong for Järvi to sign CDs after the concert.

Suntory Hall, one of the finest acoustic spaces in the world, was a perfect marriage of sonics and musical performance. Järvi gave his Japanese audience something new, New York composer Charles Coleman's "Streetscape," a work Järvi commissioned for his inaugural concert as CSO music director in 2001.

The work's percussive excitement and urban coloration (trombone glissandi as motorbikes) went down well with the crowd, and Järvi's command was total.

"It's my orchestra now," he told Japanese journalist Minoru Okamoto in a post-concert interview. "We have developed a real human and musical understanding." This was both audible and visible in the Coleman, where his slightest gesture -- a sudden diminuendo just before the end, for example -- brought an immediate response

Suwanai delivered her best performance of the tour at Suntory Hall, showing formidable dexterity in the cadenza and throat-catching sweetness high on the E-string. Järvi ran the gamut of emotions in the "Symphonie fantastique," yielding a vivid portrait of Berlioz's seriously distracted young man (protagonist of the work) and capturing the skin-crawling revelry of the "Witches Sabbath."

He saved a bit of fun for the encores, which included Gershwin's jazzy "Walkin' the Dog." Clarinetist Richard Hawley stood up for some hot licks, while Järvi rested his arm on the podium rail and nodded along. Brahms' Hungarian Dance was flavorful and jocular with exaggerated effects and a final, casual flick of the baton.

In attendance at the concert were former Cincinnatians Tris and Brenda Colaizzi; Kenji Uenishi, whose daughter Martha studied with the late CSO cellist Geraldine Sutyak; and Argo Kangro, charge d'affaires of the embassy of the Republic of Estonia. Uenishi and his wife brought a basket of flowers to the concert in honor of Sutyak, who died in September.

The pace of the tour schedule left little time for sightseeing or "extracurricular" activities in Tokyo. Percussionist Bill Platt attended the wedding of his son's sister-in-law (who is Japanese) at a plush hotel in Tokyo's lively Roppongi District, personnel manager Walter Zeschin and librarian Rebecca Beavers visited the fashionable Ginza shopping district and percussionist David Fishlock took a ride on Yokohama's giant Ferris wheel.

The orchestra flew Monday to the southern island of Kyushu, where it will perform Grieg's Piano Concerto with pianist Yundi Li. The musicians return to Cincinnati Sunday.