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Gershwin, Ravel Shine at the CSO

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 30, 2013 - 1:58:33 PM in reviews_2013

Kirill Gerstein

It was hands across the sea Friday night at Music Hall, as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Louis Langrée, celebrated French and American music.

Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin shared the program, with fine examples of both and of “cross pollination” between the two. Soloist in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand -- both influenced by jazz -- was pianist Kirill Gerstein. Illustrating the color-drenched French palette were Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite and Gershwin’s French-influenced “An American in Paris.”

On hand for the “take back Friday” concert -- a CSO promotional reference to the concert’s coincidence with “Black Friday” -- was a near capacity crowd, giving the concert, French-born Langrée’s third as CSO music director, a celebratory aspect.

Langrée opened with “Mother Goose,” shaping it with his hands and giving it a gentle, touching interpretation fully in keeping with Ravel’s original concept (piano four-hands, for performance by children). “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” was slow and dreamy. “Tom Thumb” (lost in the forest) was highly evocative, with its bird-like sounds. “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas” sparkled, and “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast” gave welcome voice to the contra-bassoon, drolly performed by Jennifer Monroe. Unlike most performances this reviewer has heard, the final movement, “The Enchanted Garden,” was given a reading to scale, with pure sonorities and a final crescendo that was thrilling, but did not overwhelm the piece.

A native of the former Soviet Union, Gerstein, 34, made one of the most impressive CSO debuts in recent memory. The scope and breadth of his training – in jazz as well as classical music -- showed in both the Gershwin and the Ravel. His was no ordinary “Rhapsody in Blue,” but one infused with character and nuance, perky in its opening statement and with a sweeping, romantic “big theme.” Taken with clarinetist Jonathan Gunn’s wonderfully cheeky opening “smear,” colorful “wah-wah” trumpet and trombone and the CSO’s pops-honed playing, it was a performance to love.

Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is the first in a whole series of performances and exhibitions taking place in Cincinnati this season in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of World War I. (The Concerto’s dedicatee, Paul Wittgenstein, lost his right arm in the war but, undeterred, commissioned a number of works for performance by the left hand alone.) By the time of its composition (1930), Ravel had already come into contact with American jazz, and it shows in his incorporation of jazz idioms: “blue” notes, a keening solo by bassoonist William Winstead in the mid-section of the work, etc.

It was a marvel to hear and to watch Gerstein perform it, executing both melody and accompaniment with one hand and moving all over the piano, like a wizard on the keys. One was reminded, too, of the fecundity of Ravel’s imagination, as he not only met the challenge of fooling listeners (close your eyes and you hear two hands on the keys) but keeping their ears engaged with his intriguing orchestration. Langrée and the CSO gave it a vivid reading. Again, it was a signal evening for contra-bassoonist Jennifer Monroe, who announced the Concerto’s opening theme.

The concert closed with Gershwin’s postcard from Paris. The influence of the American composer’s exposure to Ravel was highlighted brilliantly by Langrée and the CSO, with every timbre, every color given just the right degree of emphasis, from the work’s famous taxi horns, to solos by concertmaster Timothy Lees, trumpeter Lindsay and Carson McTeer on tuba.

For history buffs, it was instructive to read the CSO program book – a brand new, full-color format inaugurated this season – for the performance history of the music on the program. Gershwin himself was the pianist for the CSO premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1927. Paul Wittgenstein was soloist in the CSO premiere of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in 1934, and Gershwin was in the audience for the first performance of “An American in Paris” in 1929.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall. Tickets begin at $12, available at (513) 381-3300, or online at www.cincinnatisymphony.org