By Mary Ellyn Hutton
CINCINNATI – “Louis + CSO + You,” the promo slogan for the inaugural season of Louis Langrée as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, proved prophetic, yielding a full house for his first concert Nov. 8 at Music Hall.
But it was also a well-chosen program, with a CSO premiere, Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire featuring the sextet eighth blackbird; Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (given its world premiere by the CSO in 1942) with narrator Maya Angelou; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (performed during the CSO’s first season in 1895).
In tribute to Langrée, who succeeds former music director Paavo Järvi, the CSO brass stood and played the Fanfare from Paul Dukas’ La Péri before he came out on stage, where he was met by a standing ovation. “This is the beginning of something absolutely wonderful,” he said.
Higdon’s concerto, commissioned by the CSO and a consortium of orchestras and presenters, gave an upbeat start to the evening. It was a generous palette of delectable sounds, beginning with bowed piano, an effect achieved by inserting and pulling rosined fishing line beneath the strings of the instrument. This “piano potpourri,” in which all six soloists joined and returned several times during the 25-minute, one-movement work, found the pianist striking a key and reaching into the instrument to stop vibrations and also plucking and striking strings with mallets.
Each player had a solo moment during the concerto, some bright and invigorating (clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, flutist Tim Munro, pianist Lisa Kaplan, some more reflective (violist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nicholas Photinos, and Matthew Duvall, marimba). All built to an exuberant, audience-pleasing finish. Higdon came to the stage and took a bow with the performers.
Angelou took a seat next to the podium to narrate A Lincoln Portrait. Author, poet and historian – she has been called “a global Renaissance woman” – Angelou brought vast authority to her task, speaking the 16th president’s words with clarity, dignity, and presence. The performance, given in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was accompanied by “photochoreography” by James Westwater.
An art form combining photography with music, photochoreography was created by Westwater for live symphonic performance. The Eternal Struggle, keyed to Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, comprised black-and-white, historic photographs projected onto three large screens above the stage. It was a searing presentation, detailing slavery in America, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Movement. Joined with the CSO’s vibrant playing and Angelou’s narration, it was an experience that brought tears to one’s eyes.
Langrée leapt right into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony after intermission. Clearly in sync with his musicians in every way, he brought out their very best playing (a comment applicable to the concert as a whole). The opening movement had a visceral effect, while the second was noble and smoothly flowing, with lots of nuance and whisper-soft pianissimos. The scherzo covered a terrain of feeling, from wistful (at the beginning) to staunchly heroic, to edge-of-your-seat suspense. Langrée handled the eight-bar transition from pianissimo to fortissimo and the unbroken, full-voiced assertion of the final movement with brilliance and control, as if fireworks had suddenly exploded within the hall.
There were power surges throughout the finale, signaled by sweeping gestures of Langrée’s left arm and the kind of giddy joy Beethoven built into the movement. The final bars, nicely laced with piccolo, made their famous delayed resolution with conviction and unalloyed joy, drawing the crowd to their feet with a hail of bravos.
Moved by their response, Langrée walked into the orchestra, acknowledging and shaking hands with members of every section. They saluted him in turn by refusing to stand during the final curtain call, affording him a solo bow.
Clearly, a love affair has begun in Cincinnati.
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Mary Ellyn Hutton is a free-lance music writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She wrote for the Cincinnati Post until it closed in 2007 and now maintains a web site at www.musicincincinnati.com.