By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer
A great orchestra, superb soloist and conductor and a fine program added up to way too many empty seats at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's concert Friday night in Music Hall.
Presidential debate aside, an evening with Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 4 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, "Little Russian," was rewarding in every way.
Guest conductor Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony, was on the podium, pianist Stephen Hough was center stage, and the musicians were playing for the first time with their new contracts.
Saint-Saens' Fourth Concerto is not his most familiar one (No. 2 is played more often). But it's a spectacular showpiece, and a relentless test of brilliance and virtuosity. Hough, who has performed several times for Xavier University's Piano Series in the past 12 years, delivered an Olympian performance in his Cincinnati Symphony debut.
Although this concerto is in the great romantic piano tradition, Hough captured its French lightness and transparency, as well. Glittering runs, cascades of arpeggios, leaps and octaves were handled with finesse, and he never seemed to break a sweat. His touch was sensitive and luminous in the slower passages; the first movement's Andante was languorous and beautifully felt.
The second movement opened with a fantastic scherzo, both facile and brilliant. The pianist's stamina never flagged through octave tremolos and fiendishly difficult feats, and the orchestra supported him wonderfully.
For an encore, Hough summoned gorgeous color in "Young Girls in the Garden," an evocative little piece by Federico Mompou.
Graf, a native of Austria and Houston's music director since 2001, won over the audience of about 700 off the bat with a congenial explanation of the evening's opening work, Henri Dutilleux's Timbres, espace, mouvement, a Cincinnati premiere.
It was a glimmering canvas inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's painting, "The Starry Night." More engaging was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, which concluded the program. Graf is not a flamboyant leader, but he is exceedingly musical, elegant and utterly clear in what he wants.
The musicians played their hearts out, resulting in the evening's second standing ovation.
Too bad so few were there to hear it.
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