Saturday, September 18, 2004

CSO opens in grand style

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was at full throttle as the Estonian National Male Choir pronounced with clipped power in old Finnish, "Thus died Kullervo the hero." It was a thrilling conclusion to Sibelius' colossal masterpiece Kullervo, a work that gripped Friday's opening night audience in Music Hall, and made a momentous opening to the orchestra's 110th season, Paavo Jarvi's fourth as music director.

Paavo Jarvi conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and The Estonian National Male Choir during opening night of the Symphony at Music Hall Friday.
(Enquirer photo/BRANDI STAFFORD)
Kullervo, Sibelius' first major choral/symphonic work, takes its name from the hero of the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. The ancient epic is colored by dramatic characters, mythical tales and descriptive landscapes.

From the outset of this five-movement, 75-minute journey, Jarvi led stunning aural canvases that were full of life - dark and earthy in the basses; glowing in the violins and inspired playing in the winds and brass.

Sibelius was inspired by Bruckner and Wagner (elements of the story mimic the myth of Wagner's Ring). The vocal-symphonic movements are a direct descendant of Beethoven's Ninth, and the piece anticipates the great symphonies of Mahler.

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But it is the sounds of nature and the patterned ancient chant of the Finnish epic that give Kullervo its unique character. The first movement was a symphony itself - delivered in bold swaths of color that traveled seamlessly from sunny moments to brooding ones.

The second, scenes from Kullervo's youth, was all light and shadow, with superb playing by the winds and fervent climaxes in the brass. The fourth movement, also orchestral, depicted Kullervo going to war with marches and drumrolls. Jarvi's view was bright and driven, with such clarity of detail, it was almost cinematic.

The central story, told in the third movement, was set to galloping horses and sleigh bells. The hero Kullervo comes upon a young woman on his journey, pulls her into his sleigh, seduces and rapes her, only to find out later that they are siblings. She kills herself and in the finale, wracked by guilt, Kullervo falls upon his sword.

Finnish baritone Jaakko Kortekangas took the title role, swaggering as he seduced his sister and shouting in fierce pain when he realized what he had done. Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant was a stunning, fresh-voiced Sister, who projected a range of emotion with believable feeling.

As narrator, the 53-member Estonian National Male Choir, prepared by Ants Soots, enunciated the old Finnish text with rhythmic punch and superb blend. The final movement, a funeral dirge, began in tones of hushed melancholy and grew majestically to its powerful conclusion.

Through it all, Jarvi propelled his musicians with imagination and momentum, never flagging in intensity, and they played with true distinction.

Jarvi opened the program with an equally dramatic reading of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3.

The symphony musicians are in their second week of playing without a contract, which expired Sept. 5. "We continue to talk," Steven Monder, the orchestra's president, said earlier this week.



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