Sunday, January 25, 2004

Soprano seems born for 'Auvergne'

Concert review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There was a moment in Friday's concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra when Sylvia McNair's voice positively glowed. It was during the "Bailero," the famous shepherd song from Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, as she floated a beautiful line over the orchestra's lush backdrop.

McNair's lyric soprano voice seemed meant for these songs, and she sang them ravishingly. Her performance was one of the highlights of Paavo Jarvi's program, that concluded with Carl Nielsen's powerful Symphony No. 5.

McNair, a Mansfield, Ohio, native, made her entrance in lipstick red and diamonds for Ravel's Sheherazade, a magical song cycle that was rich with expression. She told the exotic sea tale, "Asie" (Asia), with personality and clear enunciation of the French text.

Her pure, even tone was ideal for "La flute enchantee" (the enchanted flute), a sparkling duet with principal flutist Randall Bowman.

But the nicest surprise was when she gave the audience a little history lesson about the Auvergne region and its unusual French-Spanish dialect, before launching into three folk songs orchestrated by Joseph Canteloube.

Her tone was conversational and witty in "Obal, Din," whose text, she explained, was a dialogue between two people. Her ability to project her pianissimo all the way to the gallery was a plus in "Bailero," which included sweeping arpeggios by pianist Michael Chertock. A spinning song, "Lo Fiolaire," concluded the set, with the orchestra whirring along.

Jarvi opened with the program with Debussy's Nocturnes, which he will record for Telarc this week (as well as Nielsen's Fifth).

This was all about subtlety and mood. Nuages was a slowly drifting canvas of changing color, and the orchestra played with gorgeous transparency. Fetes was breezy and brilliant; Jarvi brought out details one never knew were there.

For the last movement, Sirenes, the Women of the May Festival Chorus sang their "Song of the Sirens" from the highest perch in the gallery. It was an exquisite, distant effect. Orchestral soloists shone; from Christopher Philpotts' plaintive English horn in Nuages, to Philip Collins' coolly executed trumpet solo in Sirenes.

The drama and relentless power of Nielsen's Fifth was a stark contrast. The Fifth is a war symphony: The Danish composer wrote it in reaction to World War I. Like Shostakovich, it is unsettling, and like Prokofiev, its harmonic turns are unpredictable. It unfolds like a battle between good and evil; beauty and violence.

The orchestra played with extraordinary precision. Jarvi, an impassioned leader, urged his players on forcefully, as the superb brass and percussion sections fought it out, the winds shrieked and the timpani pounded.

The incessant snare drum (Bill Platt) broke through rare sections of lyricism. The most stunning moment was the first movement's clarinet cadenza (Richard Hawley), which died away against an off-stage snare drum.


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