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MusicNOW, Cincinnati Symphony Partner for 2nd Year

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Mar 16, 2015 - 12:33:44 PM in reviews_2015

MusicNOW art installation in Music Hall by Karl Jensen
It is a familiar ritual: orchestras tuning up before their concerts.

Music director Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony made it their opening number Friday night (March 13) at Music Hall. In a manner of speaking, that is, with Edgar Varèse’s tongue-in-cheek “Tuning Up.”

It was the opening night of the second annual collaboration between Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival (celebrating its tenth anniversary) and the CSO. It unfolded before a sellout house in the 3,400-seat hall, which included many new young faces.

The concert also featured the world premiere of Caroline Shaw’s violin concerto “Lo” with the composer as soloist, works by Christopher Rouse, John Adams, MusicNOW founder Bryce Dessner and a selection of songs by the indie rock band The National.

Guest artists in addition to Shaw were The National, with Dessner on guitar, vocalist Matt Berninger, Scott Devendorf and Richard Reed Parry on guitar and bass and Bryan Devendorf  on drums. Parry filled in for Dessner’s brother Aaron. It was the band’s debut with orchestra.

Originally intended for a 1947 film entitled “Carnegie Hall,” but never used, “Tuning Up” was reconstructed by a pupil of Varèse in 1998. It is a parody and Langrée and the CSO took full advantage of that. Langrée rose to the podium (after first sitting in the concertmaster’s chair) and led the players in a piece that aped the sounds of an orchestra tuning up, complete with frequent repetitions of the pitch “A” and the kind of warm-up noodling routinely heard before concerts. CSO concertmaster Timothy Lees fiddled in double stops, principal oboist Dwight Parry stood to sound an “A,” and snatches of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (first movement) and “Yankee Doodle” were heard in the melee. It ended with a wow on a fortissimo unison “A.”

Second up was Christopher Rouse’s “The Infernal Machine” (1981). (The program order was changed causing confusion for some audience members who left for intermission before John Adams’ high energy “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”) Rouse’s somewhat sinister, relentless work spouted thwacks, slides, skitters, bumps and swirls, requiring four percussionists to handle its battery of instruments and effects.  

Caroline Shaw
Violinist/composer Shaw (in her debut as a soloist with orchestra) rendered her two-movement concerto with ease and fluidity, beginning on an open “G” and moving upward scale-wise, projecting convincingly the work’s mix of lyricism and aggressiveness. There was a lovely episode for violin solo and pizzicato strings, one more serious, with a repeated string motif taken down bow, and another whose rhythm somehow conjured for this listener the well known Vitali Chaconne. “Lo” is laced “with gestures to my favorite music,” Shaw said (Beethoven, Bartok, Mozart and The National’s “Fake Empire”), and is constructed in a rhythmically free manner, with strict time and flexible time alternating or coexisting. Langrée led the CSO with great sensitivity and attention to detail.

Bryce Dessner
Dessner’s 2012 “Lachrimae” for string orchestra was inspired, he said, by Elizabethan composer John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears” and Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings. From a gentle beginning, the music gathered energy, but maintained an overall plaintive atmosphere. It “deflated” at the end, with soft sliding figures, creating almost an echo effect.

The National performing with Louis Langrée and the CSO March 13 at Music Hall (photo by Mark Lyons)
Songs by The National accompanied by the CSO comprised the second half of the concert. They included “Runaway,” “This is the Last Time,” “England,” “About Today” and “Vanderlyle,” all sung with haunting intensity by Berninger. “This is the Last Time” was dedicated to Aaron Dessner (who was in New York, awaiting the birth of his first child). “About Today” – “for my parents,” said Bryce -- was nostalgic and inspirational, with a big crescendo, while “England” soared.  “I Need My Girl,” performed by the band alone, made a welcome statement, as did “Vanderlyle.”

Throughout the program, the CSO performed in a precise and compelling manner despite the challenges presented by so much new music, earning a unanimous standing ovation.

The encore was “Fake Empire,” performed by the band, with Langrée playing along on celeste.

MusicNOW returns with the CSO at 8 p.m. Saturday night (March 14) at Music Hall with an entirely different program. Tickets and information, including details about the complete MusicNOW Festival, are available at (513-381-3300, www.cincinnatisymphony.org and www.musicnowfestival.org