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What is the Cincinnati Symphony Doing Here?

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 7, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

   There was a moment during Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony Friday morning at Music Hall when the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra sounded completely dispirited.
   You couldn't blame them. It wasn't their fault or guest conductor James DePreist's. The look on one of the first violinists' faces (gazing out into the hall) said it best: "What are we doing here?"
   Although the CSO stopped releasing house counts long ago, there were surely fewer than 1,000 people scattered over the 3,500-seat hall for the concert. This might not have been that bad in an optimal 2,000-seat venue - CSO audiences could regularly fill concert halls in the nation's largest cities - but it couldn't help but sap the morale of Friday's players and listeners (a patron in one of the house's most expensive seats was seen using binoculars).
   How long can the CSO leadership let the city's premiere arts organization languish for the sake of a 127-year-old structure built to accommodate wall-to-wall song festivals, not intimate symphony concerts? A Music Hall Working Group, made up of tenants of the hall (CSO, Cincinnati Opera, Ballet and May Festival) and the Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages Music Hall for the city, has invited an architect and acoustician to advise them on re-configuring the hall. There are justifiable concerns, however, including money, acoustics and location. As have other U.S. cities (Nashville, Miami, Los Angeles), it may be the time for Cincinnati to build a brand new concert hall worthy of its reputation for musical excellence.
   That said, Friday's concert was a perfectly good one. DePreist, conductor laureate of the Oregon Symphony and head of the conducting program at New York's Juilliard School, got precise, skillful playing from the CSO. The Symphony No. 4 by American composer Vincent Persichetti, a CSO premiere, was well worth hearing, as was the CSO debut of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. Mendelssohn's "Italian" symphony is a generally hardy perennial.
   Lortie, whose recordings of Beethoven and Chopin are highly regarded, bowed in with Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. He captured his listeners' attention immediately with the sweep and energy of his playing. The florid, perfumed lines of the Larghetto were lovely and lulling, giving the animated finale an added kick. Lortie followed up with a boffo encore, the brief, quick-as-a-wink Etude, Op. 10, No. 4 by Chopin.
   A student of Persichetti's at the Philadelphia Conservatory, DePreist brought a magisterial touch to his 1951 Symphony No. 4. It's a fascinating work for its use of instrumental color and chamber-music textures, which DePreist conveyed with transparency and scrupulous attention to detail.
   Cast in the classic, four-movement symphonic mould, with venturesome but inoffensive harmonies, the work conveys charm and feeling, from the somber beginning to the Presto finale, with its hints of Stravinsky (bite) and Mussorgsky (low brass) and all-American optimism.
   Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 fared well technically, though one wished for more color and sparkle. The flutes gave a pewter-toned edge to the Andante (suggestive of a monastic procession) and the tarantella figures of the concluding Saltarello welled up convincingly in the strings. The length of the concert may have played a role, too, as both players and listeners seemed to tire by the end.
   Repeat is 8 tonight at Music Hall.
(first published in The Cincinnati Post Oct. 7, 2006)