Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Orchestra ends season with bangs

Concert review

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra said farewell to summer on Sunday evening with a blockbuster all-Russian program that climaxed with an explosive 1812 Overture, complete with perfectly timed cannon fire.

Violinist Yang Liu
(Enquirer file)
The picture-perfect evening and the fireworks display that followed were a festive conclusion to the orchestra's 20th anniversary season at Riverbend, its summer home.

In a surprise announcement, the orchestra also bid farewell to its principal timpanist of 37 years, Eugene Espino, who was playing his final performance before retiring. The timpanist received two standing ovations from the good-sized crowd, as he was honored by both symphony and Pops.

The retirement - for personal reasons, the orchestra said - caught symphony management off guard. No plans are in place yet to hold auditions for his replacement. Replacing such a superb musician won't be easy.

On the podium, Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel was an energetic presence, despite the fact that he was conducting for his third consecutive evening (he led the Pops on Friday and Saturday).

Kunzel's program was exotic and tuneful, with bold swashes of color, fanfares and processionals.

He opened with Shostakovich's Festive Overture, unleashing the full power of the brass, with added players flanking the stage. Though it was hard to hear much detail outdoors, it was exuberant and splashy, like much of the evening.

In the spotlight, two exceptional young artists made impressive solo debuts. Darrett Zusko, a 19-year-old Windsor, Ontario, native, displayed flashes of brilliance and power in Rachmaninoff's arch-romantic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Clearly a phenom, the pianist tackled the diabolical showpiece with a facile, fleet technique - so fleet that Kunzel struggled to keep up. The first variations were more about speed than ringing tone or lushness; one hopes with maturity, he'll learn to let the music breathe.

The poor sound didn't help. But despite the problems, the famous Eighteenth Variation was beautifully phrased, and the concluding moments were electrifying.

In the second half, Yang Liu, a former student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, took up his violin in Borodin's Nocturne from the String Quartet No. 2, also known as "And This is My Beloved" from Kismet.

The violinist projected a gorgeous tone and a big vibrato, and his performance had a lingering beauty. It was not the kind of piece to show off his brilliant technique, and left one wishing to hear more of what he can do.

In between, the hard-working May Festival Summer Chorus (James Bagwell, director) worked overtime in Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, a piece of sensuous color and vivid drama. Rimsky-Korsakov's Procession of the Nobles from Mlada was punctuated by brass fanfares and timpani flourishes (kudos to Espino).

But it was the 1812 that wowed the audience, sung here in its choral version, with deafening, life-like cannon shots. The chorus sang the opening a cappella hymn ("God Preserve Thy People") in English. The Cincinnati Children's Choir (Robyn Lana, director) strode out for its charming moment in the Russian folk song.

The orchestra rose to the occasion with fine playing, and Kunzel paced the great build-ups for maximum drama. The encore was "Stars and Stripes Forever," with the crowd clapping along.


E-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com

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