Saturday, March 6, 2004

Lopez-Cobos visits, with sedate program

Concert review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nanie (Threnody) and Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) are two of Brahms' most radiant choral pieces. Friday, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, music director emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, warmly interpreted these gems, with help from the May Festival Chorus.

They were highlights of a sedate program that included the symphony's first performances of Benjamin Britten's Matinees Musicales (a charming suite of Rossini tunes) and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, with violinist Vladimir Spivakov.

Lopez-Cobos, who is now a busy conductor of opera, is equally suited to the choral literature. His Brahms was tender and beautifully balanced, and he conveyed the bleak, melancholy quality of the words with flowing tempos and steadily building crescendos.

The chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, responded with velvety textures and polished singing. Lopez-Cobos emphasized the starkness of the contrasting moods in Schicksalslied, and the chorus sang its agitated sections with focus, power and clipped consonants.

Nanie, which opened with a beautifully phrased oboe solo (Lon Bussell), was memorable for the chorus' clear counterpoint and hushed, dark timbre.

It was a glowing prelude to the May Festival season.

In the first half, Spivakov was soloist for Mozart's Concerto in A Major, Turkish. Although he's mainly known for his chamber group, the Moscow Virtuosi,Spivakov also conducted the Russian National Orchestra for a few seasons. This year, he became director of a new orchestra, the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, as well as head of Moscow's new, $200 million performing arts center.

His first notes, played with a big vibrato, placed his performance firmly in the old school of Russian violin playing. This was romantic Mozart, with long, lyrical bowing and relaxed tempos - odd, considering that most players aim to be historically correct nowadays.

That said, the sound he projected on his 1712 Stradivarius was big and glorious, and his phrasing was consistently musical. The finale, with its Turkish march, was most appealing. Here his playing had real soul, and the orchestra matched in a spirited collaboration.

Lopez-Cobos kept a perfect balance, and the sparse Music Hall audience gave it a warm reception.

Britten wrote his Matinees Musicales as a ballet score for choreographer George Balanchine. I would have liked more humor, charm and surprise, but it was engaging, and the orchestra played it well.

The concert repeats at 3 p.m. today in Music Hall. Tickets: 381-3300.


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