Saturday, June 10, 2000

Pianist begins CSO summer dazzlingly

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Keep your eye on Jonathan Biss. This 19-year-old pianist is going places.

        Mr. Biss was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's first soloist of the summer at Riverbend Friday night. The dazzling impression he left in Mendelssohn's Concerto in G Minor was matched only by the orchestra's spellbinding performance of Scheherazade after intermission.

        In fact, the only disappointment in the well-conceived program led by associate conductor John Morris Russell was that there were not more than 1,211 people to hear it.

        Handel's Water Music (Suite No. 2) was the ideal opener for this river venue, performed just as the Mississippi Queen floated by. Mr. Russell led a brisk, vigorous performance, and his enthusiasm seemed to bubble over into the music. The familiar theme of the Hornpipe was nicely ornamented by the brass. (Too bad the movements were not given in the program.)

        It's hard to believe that Mr. Biss, who is a native of Bloomington, Ind., is a teen-ager. Although Mendelssohn's G Minor Concerto is a flashy showpiece, he did not play for the sake of sheer display, but beautifully balanced brilliance with poetry.

        Technical fireworks, such as keyboard-spanning runs, arpeggios and trills, were played with ease; the lightness and fleetness of the first movement captured the Mendelssohnian spirit.

        A natural in chamber music, Mr. Biss often turned to communicate with the orchestra. The theme of the slow movement was shaped beautifully, and his sparkling cascades in the finale were absolutely clean.

        Mr. Russell supported with sensitivity, and the collaboration was truly delightful.

        Despite improvements to the sound system on the lawn, however, the sound in the pavilion at Riverbend leaves a lot to be desired. The piano sounded like it was in Indiana. When is management going to spring for a decent sound system?

        Mr. Russell led a performance of extraordinary drama and charisma in Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic Scheherezade.

        The picturesque symphonic suite, with its episodes from The Arabian Nights, had momentum and sweep, yet Mr. Russell allowed the many orchestral soloists the freedom they needed.

        Concertmaster Timothy Lees played the violin solo (Scheherazade) with exquisite beauty, spinning a sinuous, sensual line. Among the many orchestra contributions, principal clarinetist Richard Hawley added dash.


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