Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Vocal Arts Ensemble Include Brahms in "Affairs of the Heart"

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 16, 2010 - 2:28:21 AM in reviews_2010

Catherine Keen
There were at least four good reasons to attend the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra concert led by music director Mischa Santora on Sunday (November 14):

It was the CCO’s annual collaboration with the Vocal Arts Ensemble, directed by Donald Nally.

It featured mezzo-soprano Catherine Keen singing Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody.

It was part two of the CCO’s focus on Robert Schumann during the bicentennial of his birth.

It took place in a splendid new venue, Corbett Theater, in the new School for Creative and Performing Arts on Central Parkway.

The title of the program, “Affairs of the Heart,” had more complex associations for this concert than it did for the CCO’s season-opener October 10, which centered on the love story of Robert and Clara Schumann.  Three of the four works heard Sunday were by Johannes Brahms, whose relationship with the Schumann family remains a subject of study to this day.  It is known that Brahms was devoted to Schumann and helped care for him and his family during his final illness, a form of dementia -- cause unknown, though theories abound -- that forced him to spend the last two years of his life in an insane asylum.

Brahms as a young man
It also known that Brahms was devoted to Clara, with whom he maintained a close, possibly even romantic, relationship.  It is also known that Brahms was in love with the Schumanns’ daughter Julie.  He dedicated his first set of “Liebeslieder” Waltzes to her, but after hearing that she had become engaged to an Italian nobleman, he wrote his very dark Alto Rhapsody and sent it to her as a wedding present.

These tangled matters were well illustrated by the music chosen for the concert, Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52, Brahms’ “Liebeslieder” Waltzes, Op. 52 ("Love Song Waltzes"), Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and three of his Hungarian Dances.

Corbett Theater, view from the balcon
The 723-seat hall, although not sold out, was comfortably full and there was a real sense of “occasion.”  The new venue, which is raked upward and has a balcony, is very inviting with its combination of wood paneling and blue upholstery.  The acoustics are quite good and it bids to be very popular with organizations and groups that have been looking for a smaller performance space.

Robert Schumann
Santora and the CCO opened with the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, a proto-symphony composed in 1841, the year after Robert and Clara were married.  One of Schumann's earliest symphonic works, it might have become a full-fledged symphony if he had written a slow movement.  Perhaps he wasn’t in the mood, having completed his First Symphony (“Spring”) and the first version of what became his Fourth Symphony the same year (1841).  Just over 17 minutes long, it has a spring-like aura as well.  A rather solemn introduction preceded the light-hearted Overture. The Scherzo had lightly galloping rhythms and a sweet, sunny Trio.  The Finale was a bit quirky, with meandering rhythms. Santora kept the clipped rhythms of the two final movements precisely in check.  Double bassist Chris Roberts capped the Trio with a gentle waft of his bow.

Vocal Arts Ensemble
In Brahms’ love songs, all set to poems by Georg Friedrich Daumer, the 21-voice VAE, since last season under Nally's leadership, demonstrated once again why it is the area’s premier vocal ensemble.  Daumer’s poems, some of them quite short, are full of character and contrasting emotions.  All were projected precisely and discretely by the VAE singers.

There was longing in “O die Frauen, wie sie Wonne tauen” (“O women, how they melt one with bliss”) and “Die grune Hopfenrank” about a vine that needs something to cling to.  There was sorrow in “Wohl schön bewändt war es vor ehe” (“Quite fair and contented was I previously”), agitation in “Nein, es ist nicht auszukommen mit den Leuten” (“No, there’s just no getting along with people”) and contentment in “Wenn so lind dein Auge mir und so lieblich schauet” (“When your eyes look at me so gently and lovingly”).  Particularly vivid was “Am Donaustrande, da steht ein Haus” (“On the banks of the Danube, there stands a house”) where a young man vows to “snap as if they were glass” the bolts that keep his beloved locked away.

Keen, a native of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky and graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, is enjoying a major career, with plum roles in North America and Europe.  She has not forgotten Cincinnati, however, having sung Emilia in Verdi’s “Otello” for Cincinnati Opera  in July.  She was also a guest artist at the 2009 May Festival.  Keen's dark, opulent mezzo is perfectly matched to Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a cry of pain based on a poem by Goethe.  In it, a man wanders in despair.  The singer addresses him, describes his plight and offers a prayer for relief of his suffering.  (Brahms himself described it as the flip side of his “Liebeslieder” Waltzes.)

Regal in a long black dress, Keen cast her questing words in garnet tones as if to say, do not avert your eyes from this man’s affliction.  As her prayer began, underscored by the men of the VAE, her address became warm and consolatory, leaving no one in the hall untouched.  (Regrettably, the Alto Rhapsody will not be on the program when the concert repeats November 21 in Anderson Township.)

To dispel the clouds and end the concert on a happy note, Santora led the CCO in Brahms’ Hungarian Dances No. 5, 6 and 7.  These perennial favorites had substance in his hands, as well as the more arch inflections usually given them when they are played as encores.  He dug right into the gutsy No. 6 and imparted a touch of soul (if that's  not too strong a word) into the often manic No. 7.

The concert repeats with Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Brahms’ “Liebeslieder” Waltzes and the three Hungarian Dances at 7:30 p.m. November 21 at Anderson Center on Five-Mile Road in Anderson Township.  For tickets and information, call (513) 723-1182 or visit www.ccocincinnati.org