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Stravinsky Behind the Mask

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 3, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2007

Paavo Järvi

   Igor Stravinsky lied. Or he had yet to meet Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
   Famously known for having declared that "music is by its very
nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all," Stravinsky
used the mask of objectivity to craft his own powerful means of
    Järvi noted in a "Classical Conversation" an hour before Friday
night's CSO concert at Music Hall that when it comes to composers, "you
should never trust anything they write," then demonstrated that with a
performance of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms with the CSO and May
Festival Chorus that packed an expressive punch that may have been
beyond words, but certainly not beyond music.
   That expressivity was fundamentally and profoundly religious. As
such it was well paired with another Stravinsky work, his
Chorale-Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" ("From Heaven
High I Come to You") based on an organ work by J.S. Bach. A CSO
premiere, it also resembled the Symphony of Psalms in its unusual
instrumentation, both works utilizing reduced "dark" string sections
and predominantly wind sonorities (just cellos and basses in the
Symphony of Psalms, violas and basses in the Chorale-Variations).
   The chorus played a cantus firmus role in the Chorale-Variations
until the end, where the men and women sang in a two-part canon, the
men voicing the chorale upside down.  The variations, largely defined
by the instruments, were elaborate and delightfully Stravinskyian, the
composer having slyly inserted occasional "wrong notes."
   The second half of the program, which opens a two-week CSO
"Stravinsky Festival," consisted of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3
("Eroica"). The choice was dictated, said Järvi, by both composers
having been musical revolutionaries.
   Prepared by May Festival Chorus director Robert Porco, the chorus is
as finely tuned vocally as the CSO is instrumentally and they made
perfect collaborators.
   The three movement Symphony of Psalms is a setting of verses from
Psalms 38 and 39 from the Latin Vulgate (39 and 40 in the King James
version) and the complete Psalm 150. The Psalms answer each other and
it could be clearly discerned in the music.
   "Exaudi orationem meam" ("Hear my prayer") opened Psalm 38 in music
that was stark and imploring, with a hard, relentlessly hammered
two-note motif.  Psalm 39, "Expectans expectavi Dominum et intendit
mihi" ("I waited patiently for the Lord and He inclined unto me"),  was
the answer, beginning with a softly uttered, forlorn fugue rising to a
loud declamation on "Et immisit in os meum canticum novum" ("And He
hath put a new song in my mouth").
   Psalm 150, "Alleluia. Laudate Dominum" ("Alleluia, Praise ye the
Lord") became that new song, unfolding in sublime beauty
(thrice-repeated "Alleluias") with crisp accents on "Laudate Dominum."
   The concluding "Laudate Eum in cymbalis benesonantibus" ("Praise Him
upon the loud cymbals") lacked cymbals, but offered a vision of
eternity instead, with a rhythmic and harmonic ostinato of ethereal
   Beethoven's "Eroica" had the energy and transparency of a chamber
ensemble with the sheen of a full symphony orchestra. Järvi, who just
won the German Record Critics Prize for his recording of the "Eroica"
and Eighth Symphonies with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, put
his individual stamp on it with the CSO, as well.  The first movement
was lyrical and dancelike (even waltz-like at times).  The Funeral
March was noble in its grief and the Scherzo dripped with mirth.  The
finale was as filled with character as a puppet theater, with a
breathtaking pell mell conclusion.
   Repeats are 8 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall. Don't miss
Järvi’s "Classical Conversation" with CSO assistant conductor Eric
Dudley an hour before each performance