By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In one unbroken motion, pianist James Tocco started at the bottom of the keyboard, pounded his way to the top - and lept out of his seat and into a bear hug with conductor Andrew Litton. That was the gripping conclusion to John Corigliano's Piano Concerto, in its first-ever performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday night.
If the program was unfamiliar to most in Music Hall's smallish crowd, it was because both the concerto and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1, performed after intermission, were CSO premieres. But the orchestra, which has been playing at the top of its game lately, turned in powerful performances and guest conductor Litton was a persuasive leader.
Tocco, who is artist-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, has an affinity for American music, and recorded the 1967 concerto a decade ago with the Louisville Orchestra. It's a punishing score, but he delivered an authoritative performance, pitting fiendishly difficult double octaves against moments of poetry.
Corigliano is a modern composer whose music communicates on an emotional level. (He recently wrote the film score to The Red Violin.) The piece opened with a huge cadenza for piano, and its driving energy never let up through four movements. The second movement was a staccato scherzo, both forceful and slightly jazzy.
Tocco projected the theme of the slow movement with singing tone, and plunged into the finale, a fantastic fugue. He punctuated brilliant runs with chord clusters - achieved by pounding his palm on the keyboard. Litton led the work's changing meters convincingly, and brought out brilliance in the orchestra without overpowering the soloist. Together, it was a tour-de-force that had the audience on its feet.
Rachmaninoff's First was only performed once in his lifetime, and remains one of his lesser-known works. There were times when the piece wandered - but its brooding Russian moods, long-breathed romantic melodies and well-executed brass fanfares made it worthwhile.
Litton balanced the brass well against the strings, and his reading was rich with detail. The second movement had a muted atmosphere; he put down his baton to inspire a luminous sound in the strings. He led the arch-romantic themes of the finale with great sweeping gestures.
Litton opened with Berlioz' Overture to Beatrice and Benedict, a scintillating opera on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
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