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Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Go Beyond Excellence

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 11, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

  It's not often that a conductor can command such concentration from an orchestra and have his wishes as perfectly expressed in the music as Paavo Järvi did Friday night at Music Hall.
   The Cincinnati Symphony music director has what it takes to make this orchestra not only the best it can be, but to take it beyond excellence into truly inspired music-making.
   So it was with Mahler's Ninth Symphony. As the violas sounded the last four notes of the Adagio finale, communication with Järvi was total. These notes, marked "extremely slow" and "pianississimo" (triple piano) seemed to flow directly from his hands through their instruments. Each note had a special meaning, and Järvi lingered over them, giving the next-to-last an achingly gentle touch as it yielded to the valedictory chord.
   The concert was a particularly thoughtful one, since both works on the program dealt with death. But Mahler's Ninth and Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension" have completely different points of view. Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic and his 1933 "L'Ascension" brooks no doubts as to what lies beyond the grave. Mahler, on the other hand, was haunted by the specter of death and in fact, died of a heart ailment at 51 just a year after completing this symphony. Mahler's Ninth, said Järvi in videotaped remarks before the concert, "was a very personal, Jewish, angst-ridden journey."
   It begins almost nonchalantly with a few fragmentary thoughts in horn, harp and strings, before being gripped by turmoil. Rushes of hope alternate with sheer terror and it works into a funeral march, with nauseous heavings of sound that finally die away, as if exhausted. Jarvi filled the second movement, an Austrian ländler, with falling-down+drunk exuberance, lurching from side to side at one point, and giving the saucy little ending a flip of his hand.
   The Rondo-Burleske was more sound and fury, as Mahler struggles against the shadow of death (he knew he was dying when he wrote the Symphony). Jonathan Gunn's E-flat clarinet whistled in the dark and a pitiful cry in the trumpet interrupted the clamor. Still, it ended with a great big kick in the pants, signaled by a huge sideways swipe of Jarvi's baton.
   The Adagio, a shining moment for the strings, has some amorous as well as tender moments and Jarvi led it with searing intensity.
   "L'Ascension," subtitled "Four Symphonic Meditations," is inspired by biblical texts dealing with the afterlife. The first, "Majesty of Christ Asking Glory from His Father" is a soaring brass chorale (kudos to Doug Lindsay and the entire trumpet section). The second, "Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul Desiring Heaven," features the woodwinds in exotic, chant-like music of great timbral beauty.
   "Hallelujah on the Trumpet, Hallelujah on the Cymbal" begins with a trumpet fanfare and introduces tambourine, bass drum and cymbals as jubliant accompaniment for the soul's journey to heaven.
   "Christ's Prayer Rising to His Father" conveys the ultimate majesty, Christ's ascension. Jarvi and the CSO captured this in slow-moving string passages that climbed higher and higher until the final unresolved-sounding (timeless) chord.
   Each movement was accompanied by colored lighting, blue, mauve, peach and finally kettledrum copper. Messiaen experienced synesthesia, i.e. he associated particular chords and pitches with particular colors.
   Repeat is 8 tonight at Music Hall.
(first published in The Cincinnati Post Nov. 11, 2006)