from Music in Cincinnati
February 25, 2012
Friday morning’s Cincinnati Symphony concert at Music Hall was a time to smell the flowers, February or not.
Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot led a program comprising Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 6), a CSO premiere by Franz Liszt and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Making his CSO debut in the Schumann was American pianist Jonathan Biss (a “neighbor,” you might say, having been born in Bloomington, Indiana).
Biss is superbly musical and with technique to match, but for this young man (31), the music is first and foremost. He demonstrated this in the Schumann, which had a warmth and artistic integrity that engaged and touched all within hearing (including a number of young piano students brought to Music Hall to hear him).
Biss is from a musical family (his parents are violinists Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, his grandmother was cellist Raya Garbousova, for whom Samuel Barber wrote his Cello Concerto) and nature and nurture shine through his playing. The first movement of the Schumann Concerto, Allegro affetuoso (tender), was warm but never gushy, with a beautifully rendered cadenza. The Andante grazioso was appropriately winsome, followed without a break by a bright, outgoing finale (Allegro vivace). Morlot kept the CSO closely in sync with Biss and the performance won an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony is one of his most popular. Filled with tone painting, it anticipated the programmatic music of Liszt, Richard Strauss, etc. Morlot, 37, a native of France in his first season as music director of the Seattle Symphony – and an extremely popular one, reference the New York Times of January 27 — led a welcome reading of the familiar work, one that was designed to please and inspire the audience.
The opening “Arriving in the Country” (first movement) was filled with charm, as was the “Scene by the Brook,” taken in a brisk, flowing tempo, with every ripple and rivulet audible. The “Jolly Gathering of Country Folk” flashed smiles and the “Thunderstorm,” underlined by principal timpanist Patrick Schleker, tossed thunderbolts. The “Shepherd’s Hymn” (thanksgiving after the storm), crowning movement of the Symphony, ended the concert on a triumphant note.
Still, playing by the CSO was strangely uneven, with occasional faulty ensemble in the strings and some gaffes in the brass. Stars of the performance were the CSO winds, including flutist Randolph Bowman, oboist Dwight Parry, clarinetist Jonathan Gunn and bassoonist William Winstead, who lit up the work with their solos. The “aviary” in “Scene by the Brook,” with bird calls by Bowman, Parry and Gunn, was completely disarming.
The concert opened with a fine exposition of Liszt’s “From the Cradle to the Grave,” last of the composer’s 13 tone poems. Its three movements, “The Cradle,” “The Struggle for Life” and “To the Grave: The Cradle of Future Life,” deal with the three stages of life. “The Cradle,” a lullaby-like movement for muted upper strings, flutes and harp, began with a soft, caressing melody by the violas — who, by the way, covered themselves with glory throughout the concert, belying the customary, wickedly humorous denigration of the violin’s larger relative. The agitation of the second movement transitioned into the inconclusive, but optimistic finale, which took the audience somewhat by surprise.
Morlot conducts with precise, fluid gestures and communicates easily through his facial expressions (the latter less obvious to the audience in over-sized Music Hall). Though he would make a fine candidate for CSO music director (unfilled since the departure of Paavo Järvi at the end of last season), Seattle is both wild about him and offering him significant programming opportunities.