Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Hearty American Feast

The last Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert for the season finished with a bang. Copland's Third Symphony is not my favorite Copland piece, but Robert Spano and the symphony made a powerful case for this quintessentially American classic.

I was less impressed with All Things Majestic, a four-movement symphonic work by Jennifer Higdon that concludes her residency with the symphony this year. In general, I'm a big fan of her music. She has an uncanny way of finding the perfect orchestral color for every moment, and her music is as outgoing and friendly as she is. I imagine instead of her writing her musical strokes on the page, that it's a big, friendly dog licking colors onto a smooth musical canvas.

This piece didn't really speak to me, however. I think one of the best things about Higdon's writing is that it's accessible to the players as well as the audience—she keeps things simple on the page, without unnecessary technical complications. This piece seemed almost too simple though, as if it was written for a talented high school orchestra instead of a top professional group, and the players seemed unsure of what to do with the music. They weren't helped by Spano, who offered little musical assistance. The principal cellist, Ilya Finkelshteyn, made a valiant effort to grind some expressive nous out of his solos, but the other leading strings seemed uninspired by solos which never turned out to be soloistic. There were also moving images in the background, courtesy of the local PBS station CNET. It's very hard to make visual elements work with orchestras, and every time I've experienced the combination I've wished they hadn't taken the trouble. But I hope to be convinced otherwise someday.

I hadn't seen Spano conduct before. His loose black shirt and thick glasses gives him the appearance of not caring too much about appearance, as a kind of dismissal of the showmanship that dominates the show biz of Classical music. His conducting was equally undemonstrative, with few expressive hints visible from the audience, let alone the histrionics of the podium actors. He often reverts to symmetrical conducting, his left hand mirroring his right. There must be a powerful intellect behind his conducting, however, which came to the fore most notably in the Copland. He built the work intensely and purposefully, in granite blocks, without unnecessary prettiness.

The highlight of the evening for me was undoubtedly the Barber Piano Concerto, performed by Garrick Ohlsson. Garrick Ohlsson is a giant bear of a man and the piano looks like a toy instrument next to him. He projects his sound so easily over the orchestra, even in Music Hall which I've found to be unhelpful to more restrained soloists. Like Spano, Ohlsson lays out the music simply, smoothing out the expressive bumps in favor of a expansive structure. I always found it interesting that Ohlsson, a pianist who does everything so well, should have won the Chopin Competition of all competitions and built his career on Chopin. I like his Chopin playing, but if I had to choose I'd like it little less facile at times. The Barber Concerto suits him perfectly, and his performance was utterly magnificent, I think the best piano performance I've heard at the CSO this year.