Saturday, November 27, 1999

CSO shines under Hirokami's baton

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You may have heard Dvorak's New World Symphony a hundred times, but you have never heard it as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played it under Junichi Hirokami on Friday night in Music Hall.

        The popular Japanese-born maestro, who has appeared with the CSO almost as regularly as a principal guest conductor since 1996, led a stunning program that twice brought the audience of 1,432 to its feet. From a beautifully detailed performance of Dvorak's familiar Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” to provocative works by Poulenc and Bernstein, the result was one of the season's most appealing concerts.

        Whether Mr. Hirokami is a candidate for CSO music director is unknown — but he told The Enquirer last year that he was not ready to take an American orchestra. (He is permanent guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic and holds two positions in Europe.) Regardless, Mr. Hirokami is well liked by the CSO musicians, who responded to his direction with fine playing, and then applauded him as he took a bow.

        He opened with the CSO's first performances of Francis Poulenc's Suite from Les Biches. The engaging, neoclassical ballet evokes Stravinsky's Pulcinella at times. But its witty writing, which tosses a bit of French music hall into the mix, is all Poulenc. This performance sparkled; textures were as clean as if it was chamber music, and Mr. Hirokami retained a light touch.

        A conductor who is fun to watch, he struck a balance between fluid, legato phrasing and leaping to inspire crisp playing. Of the five movements, the “Rag-Mazurka” had a wonderful spontaneity as the winds and brass tossed tunes back and forth.

        Ukraine-born violinist Vadim Gluzman was the evening's soloist in Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Violin, Strings and Percussion, in his CSO debut. Just in his 20s, he is an artist of considerable skill and depth — clearly someone to watch. His tone was pure and creamy, and his technique was effortless.

        The work, inspired by Plato's dialogue The Symposium, follows five statements in praise of love. The violinist communicated with intensity in this winning collaboration. Mr. Hirokami, who was Mr. Bernstein's assistant in 1988, was a sensitive partner who brought life to the dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Most appealing (and most typically Bernstein) was the finale — jazzy, brilliant and meticulously executed.

        After intermission, Mr. Hirokami led an inspired reading of Dvorak's New World Symphony. Conducting with warmth and imagination, he brought out subtleties that put this work in a fresh light. Above all, the CSO sounded stunning — transparent, clean and well-balanced.

        Mr. Hirokami's tempo in the second movement, a real largo, allowed the CSO's English hornist Robert Walters to perform a sustained and beautifully shaped solo — and the effect was deeply moving.


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