Friday, November 5, 2004

Performing Mahler brings focus, emotion

By Janelle Gelfand / Enquirer staff writer

FRANKFURT, Germany - Paavo Jarvi was conducting one of the most critical French horn passages in the third movement of Mahler's immense Symphony No. 5, Wednesday night in Frankfurt's Alte Oper, when suddenly a commotion occurred in the back of the hall. A man had collapsed and someone yelled "Arzt!" (Doctor!)

Janelle Gelfand is traveling with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on its European tour. Today she reviews the CSO's concert Wednesday in Frankfurt, Germany. To read more, check her daily blog.
Jarvi turned around, took a quick assessment, and kept conducting.

"You just have to play it by ear. There's no textbook to deal with this situation," he said afterward. The person had fainted from low blood sugar, and was hospitalized, officials said.

Despite that bit of drama, the orchestra remained focused and turned in one of its stronger performances in the fifth concert of a demanding tour. Tuesday's performance in Cologne's Philharmonie, following a six-hour bus ride from Stuttgart, had been less than refined.

The dry, clear hall was unforgiving, and minor bobbles and intonation problems stood out. Once, Jarvi stopped between movements and had the orchestra re-tune. Nevertheless, the audience was impressed, and brought Jarvi back for many bows with the European-style rhythmic clapping.

There is much that links the Cincinnati Symphony to the European musical tradition. Jarvi conducted Mahler's Fifth in Cologne, where exactly 100 years ago, the composer had conducted its world premiere. A year later, Frank van der Stucken led its American premiere in Cincinnati.

Frankfurt's 1880-vintage Alte Oper was destroyed in World War II air raids. In 1981, Michael Gielen, the Cincinnati Symphony's former music director, led its reopening with Mahler's Symphony No. 8.

It is a cavernous, 2,400-seat modern hall in a shoebox shape, lined with wooden panels. Balconies flanked the orchestra on each side of the stage, and boxes floated up the sides of the hall. A high-fashion crowd thronged its lobbies before the sold-out concert. Some had dinner served at intermission in a gorgeous, chandeliered Opera Restaurant, designed to evoke the once-grand old opera house.

Jarvi, who conducted a different program in Frankfurt last Saturday, led Mahler and Schumann's Piano Concerto with Helene Grimaud.

The sound in the Alte Oper was bright and resonant, although some of the detail was lost in the vast space. But Jarvi led with his trademark intensity, and the musicians responded with some truly spine-tingling playing. Nothing was held back, from the emotional depths of the first movement's funeral march to the Brahms-like, noble brass passages of the second.

The scherzo's tremendous horn call had unearthly power as it soared over the orchestra. Despite the interruption, French hornist Karl Pituch, principal horn of the Detroit Symphony who is substituting for an injured Tom Sherwood, never wavered.

The serene Adagietto unfolded in one arc, and the finale was brilliant and driving. There were many "bravos" at the finish, and enthusiastic comments of "wunderschon Mahler" - beautiful Mahler.

In the first half, Grimaud projected a clear, singing tone in the Schumann. She is a soloist who can be unpredictable, fond of pushing the tempo and swaying dramatically in her seat as she pulls it back. But Jarvi and the orchestra - which sounded a bit distant in this acoustic - were in perfect sympathy.


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