Saturday, September 15, 2001

Jarvi overcomes circumstances for brilliant debut

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A great cheer went up at the conclusion of Paavo Jarvi's inaugural concert as Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra music director Friday night, and suddenly, the terrible weight of the past week fell away.

        It was not only a testimony to the uplifting power of music, but a recognition of what will undoubtedly be a brilliant tenure. After such a concert, Maestro Jarvi seems destined to lead the nation's fifth oldest orchestra to greatness.

        Faced with a national tragedy, a soloist who could not travel, and then, unexpectedly — the collapse of a musician during the performance — it was also a test of grace under pressure. But even in the most trying of circumstances, this was an auspicious debut, marked by three standing ovations — the first, before Mr. Jarvi had conducted a note.

        In the end, the conductor brought Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 to an affirmative and powerful conclusion that did not fail to move anyone who heard it.

        With television cameras rolling — a test run for Saturday's historic live broadcast from Music Hall — the evening began on a somber note, with a heartfelt “Star Spangled Banner” and the poignant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.

        The latter, announced Mr. Jarvi, was dedicated to “the thousands of people who lost their lives” in Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It was a deeply felt, meditative performance, phrased in one long arc that grew to an emotional climax.

        Streetscape, composed by New York composer Charles Coleman, 32, for the occasion, was a celebratory contrast. The 20-minute work was inspired by the composer's walks around New York City. Its many layers — driving repeated notes, sustained brass chords and jazzy rhythms — gave it an edgy, urban feel.

        The soul of the piece was the slow section, a largo, which began as a lyrical elegy for cello (Eric Kim) and violin (concertmaster Timothy Lees).

        Its faster sections were busy, bright and witty — sort of a mix of John Adams and Leonard Bernstein. The composer exploited the percussion section to great effect, with instruments such as bongos and cowbell, and created a cadenza of spectacular drumming with a touch of salsa.

        Mr. Jarvi led with wonderful style and even a bit of swing — losing little momentum even though the performance was interrupted.

        (When cellist Charles Snavely fell from his seat, Mr. Jarvi stopped the performance, leaped from the podium, and went out with the player. He then reassured the audience with a smile and “He's OK.”)

        Debussy's La Mer replaced the Shostakovich Cello Concerto scheduled to be played by Truls Mork. The orchestra sound was warm, buoyant and transparent, and Mr. Jarvi created a gorgeous canvas of subtle colors and fleeting nuances.

        For instance, the “Games of the Waves” had wonderful detail. The cellos, seated on the outside of the orchestra, played with more smoothness and precision than any time in recent memory, and the winds phrased with beautiful expression.

        Mr. Jarvi was masterful at pacing, using broad gestures to build great waves of sound, then pulling back in the glimmering, delicate moments.

        But it was the Tchaikovksy that emerged the most breathtaking. Mr. Jarvi's dynamic leadership and passionate outbursts reminded one of Leonard Bernstein — this was Tchaikovsky that had drama, sweep and atmosphere.

        He led the romantic themes with affection, but was never indulgent. His interpretation was imaginative and engaging, and orchestral soloists matched with expressive contributions.

        Every movement had distinctive character. The glorious horn solo in the second (Robin Graham) was prepared by organ-like strings; the Valse had an ebullient spirit.

        He pushed his players to a powerhouse finish, with crisp, focused brass adding excitement.

        You may have heard Tchaikovsky before, but never like this. A new era has begun.

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