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Noseda, McCawley Serve Up Tasty Musical Menu

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 17, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

   Choice Mozart, a generous helping of Respighi and a garnish of Alfred Schnittke made a delectable spread for the opening concert of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s early evening buffet series Thursday at Music Hall.
   A sizable crowd was on hand, despite the cold and rain, to enjoy complimentary dinner in the Music Hall Ballroom and hear guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda and pianist Leon McCawley, the latter in his CSO debut.
   Listeners may have been puzzled by look of the stage as they entered the hall a scattering of music stands, no chairs and a podium. They were even more surprised, no doubt, when the lights dimmed, a dozen string players and Noseda strode onstage, and principal bassist Owen Lee set up an eerie, ultra-high pitched ostinato (repeated pattern).
   Welcome to Schnittke’s delightful “Moz-art a la Haydn,” an eight-minute spoof of Mozart in the context of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45), where the musicians gradually stop playing and exit the stage.
   The lights came on again suddenly after a few bars (a nod to “and there was light” in Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation?”) and the musicians got busy de-constructing Mozart. A quick swipe at his famous G Minor Symphony produced chuckles of recognition, and listeners enjoyed a good laugh when Noseda was left with no one to conduct.
   British pianist McCawley, whose reputation preceded him (his acclaimed recordings for Avie Records include the complete Mozart piano sonatas), did not disappoint. His performance of Mozart’s great D Minor Piano Concerto, K.466, was polished to a high sheen. There was a focused solidity to his tone that served this music well, and he laid out the most strenuous passages like strings of pearls.
   The chipper little tune that opens the Romanza contrasted nicely with its animated mid-section. McCawley announced the finale with a dramatic flourish, a quality he also brought to the first and last movement cadenzas, both by Beethoven.
   Noseda, currently principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, glorified the music of fellow Italian Respighi on the second half, beginning with Respighi’s orchestration of Rachmaninoff’s “Cinq etudes-tableaux.”
   The five pieces, all with expressive titles (suggested to Respighi by Rachmaninoff), do justice to the piano originals and then some. The first, “Sea and Seagulls,” utilizes one of Rachmaninoff’s favorite themes, “Dies Irae” from the Latin Mass for the Dead, though its context is gentle and offers no hint of retribution.
   The “Funeral March” is the fullest rendering of the set with its big “Russian” buildup, complete with chimes. Still, my favorite was “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” where Respighi portrayed the wolf’s jaws with upward thrusts in the basses followed by “snaps” of timpani and tam-tam.
   “The Pines of Rome” is an enduring musical travelogue and a monument to Respighi’s mastery of orchestration. Noseda achieved splendid results here. The boisterous, trill-happy “Villa Borghese,” with its blaring “off-pitch” trumpet, plunged suddenly into “Near a Catacomb,” where trumpeter Doug Lindsay sounded a plaintive solo offstage and the music built to a chant-like conclusion. “Pines of the Janiculum” bathed the ear in ripples of piano, warm cellos and swaths of iridescent violins, trailing off at the end into the song of a nightingale (taped).
   Music stands at the sides and back of the first balcony gave a clue of things to come. With extra brasses stationed there to join the phantom tread of Roman soldiers, “Pines of the Appian Way” built to a shattering, surround-sound conclusion.
   Repeat is 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Hall (without the buffet).
(first published in The Cincinnati Post November 17, 2006)