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Steinberg Leads Thrilling Russian Fest

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 18, 2011 - 2:07:15 AM in reviews_2011

Pinchas Steinberg

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was in good hands Thursday night at Music Hall – very good hands.

They belong to guest conductor Pinchas Steinberg, who led an extremely satisfying performance of music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev to close the CSO’s Russian Festival. 

The last time Steinberg appeared with the CSO he was not in front of it, but in it.  That was in 1968 and he held the position of principal second violin.   Not long afterward, he was on the podium, having made his conducting debut in 1974 with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. 

Steinberg, 65, has an aristocratic bearing, which translated itself into music-making of the highest order.   He exerted leadership easily and naturally, and the CSO musicians gave him their best.

He opened with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, “Winter Daydreams,” giving it a finely polished rendition (from memory).  It was clear that he did not want to make something grandiloquent of the composer’s first symphonic effort, for he kept a tight rein on the brasses, allowing them to exert full strength only in the final movement.  It was a lovely reading, good-natured in the opening Andante tranquillo, quasi-Mendelssohnian in the Scherzo.  The Andante cantabile showed the melodic gift for which Tchaikovsky is famous.  After a gentle beginning, principal oboist Dwight Parry sounded the yearning little theme that asserted itself over and over without becoming stale.

The May Festival Chorus filed onstage for Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky,” not heard on CSO subscription concerts since 1974.  The film score from which the cantata was derived, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 “Alexander Nevsky,” has been heard , however -- and quite memorably -- in a screening with live CSO accompaniment  led by music  director emeritus Jesus Lopez-Cobos in 1992 at Riverbend.

It was an epic journey with an aching start, “Russia under the Mongolian Yoke.”  The Chorus sang the “Song about Alexander Nevsky” with great tenderness, moving into “The Crusaders in Pskov” with menace.  The men of the Chorus led off “Arise Ye Russian People,” a rousing call to action.  Then it was on to battle, specifically “The Battle on the Ice,” which began with icy sul ponticello (playing “on the bridge”) by the violas and cellos, and worked up to a conflagration with the Chorus screaming the words and six percussionists making a colorful din. 

The battle won, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang “The Field of the Dead,” the cantata’s most poignant moment, as a young girl enters the battlefield in search of her fiancé.    Cooke’s plangent voice was beautifully displayed against the orchestra, Steinberg ever attentive to balances.  The stirring patriotic hymn of “Alexander’s Entry to Pskov” thrilled the Music Hall audience, as did the sense of jubilation as a whole, which brought them to their feet in a rousing ovation.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 19) at Music Hall.  Tickets begin at $10.  Call (513) 381-3300, or order online at www.cincinnatisymphony.org