By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
An unfamiliar program and two rising-star artists may not have been the best box office draw for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's first home concert, following its triumphant tour of Japan. But on Friday in Music Hall, there were pleasant surprises in the half-Russian, half-Gallic evening, an evening that began on a restrained note but resulted in two standing ovations.
Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was the soloist in Rachmaninoff's little-known Fourth Piano Concerto, with guest conductor Stephane Deneve, of France, on the podium. The pianist, who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994, proved to be much more than a brilliant technician in his Cincinnati debut. His thoughtful phrasing and luminous touch gave sense to a work that doesn't have the lyricism or grandeur of the Second or Third, and he communicated its beauty.
The first movement was marked by clarity and sparkle. Lugansky easily summoned power without resorting to bombast. His softer moments were introspective, the slow movement's theme executed with simplicity and ringing tone.
The finale was supercharged, and Lugansky propelled to the finish in a blur of percussive figures. Deneve and the orchestra remained perfectly in synch.
Deneve made his biggest impression after intermission, in Roussel's Suite No. 2 from the ballet Bacchus et Ariane, which concluded the program. The conductor, just 31, is already making a name for himself on both the symphonic and operatic scenes. He has twice conducted in the pit for Cincinnati Opera, including an exquisite Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy a few years ago, and returns this summer to lead Carmen.
Deneve brought irresistible energy and color to Roussel's best-known work. In the ballet, Bacchus and Ariadne perform an intoxicated dance that ends in a Bacchanalia. Roussel's music may not be as steamy as Ravel's Bolero, but the effect is similar.
It was vividly and boldly atmospheric. Deneve captured the passion, driving rhythms and striking colors wonderfully, and the musicians responded with excitement.
Faure's Pelleas et Melisande Suite formed a companion piece. In contrast to the Roussel, this was all about subtlety and restraint.
Deneve began the Prelude with a pianissimo touch. The second movement was a charming spinning song that evoked Melisande's spinning wheel with a silken sound in the strings.
The highlight was the Sicilienne, the most familiar movement, with beautiful contributions from harpist Gillian Benet Sella and flutist Randolph Bowman. Deneve kept the accompaniment quite soft, with dreamlike effect. The final funeral dirge was touchingly somber, and the conductor effectively let it die away to nothing.
Less effective was the opener, Rachmaninoff's The Rock, an undistinguished work from his youth, that moved along in shades of gray.
CSO's Russian-Gallic night filled with pleasant surprise
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