By Janelle Gelfand
CINCINNATI — There was a festive atmosphere in Music Hall on Nov. 24 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Thanksgiving weekend, with many concertgoers visiting the hall for the first time. The theme for music director Louis Langrée’s program was “Speak Truth,” an artistic response to injustice and oppression. It opened with the world premiere of Abound, an engaging 10-minute piece for full orchestra by 27-year-old composer Emily Cooley.
The concert also provided another test of the acoustics in the ongoing process of “tuning the hall.” Built in 1878, Music Hall reopened on Oct. 6 following a 16-month, $143 million renovation. The massive project provided much-needed updates and amenities for patrons. At the same time, the orchestra’s home, Springer Auditorium, was completely rebuilt, reconfigured and reduced in size. Changes to the hall include a poured-concrete floor, walls moved inward on two floors, a seat reduction of about 1,000 seats, and a new stage that thrusts 12 feet farther into the hall than before. Each week, the acoustical consulting firm Akustiks has been “tweaking” the new glass-and-steel acoustical clouds overhead and making other small adjustments.
The results have been mixed. Nothing has worked so well as the orchestra’s recent seating arrangement under music director laureate Paavo Järvi. He moved the basses and celli to the left behind the first violins, greatly enhancing the bass range, put the second violins and violas on the right, and placed the brass and timpani across the top riser. On Nov. 24, Langrée continued with this new configuration for his program.
Cooley, a Milwaukee native who counts among her mentors Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon, is the second young American woman to have a work unveiled at a Cincinnati Symphony concert this month. (The first was Julia Adolphe, 29, whose a cappella choral work Equinox was premiered by the May Festival Chorus on Nov. 4-5.)
In a phone interview before the concert, Cooley said she was inspired by the concert’s theme to create a response to oppression or feeling marginalized.
“I wanted to write a piece that acted as a counter to that or being the opposite, meaning lush and big and expressive,” she said. “In some ways the best way to respond is to keep on going and living and flourishing to the best of your ability. My piece starts small and over the course of 10 minutes, grows to something more abundant and flourishing.”
Abound turned out to be an appealing, loosely tonal work with rich harmonies that ebbed and flowed, while brief instrumental flourishes in winds and brass rose from the texture. Some of the composer’s most effective writing was for brass chorale, as well as for trumpet solo (Douglas Lindsay), which soared at times over the undulating orchestral canvas.
Rather than grow to a peak, the piece ended rather quietly, with motives ascending to a high unison in the strings. It was the kind of attractive soundscape that might be equally at home as a film score. The audience gave it an enthusiastic reception.
However, the most indelible impression of the concert was made by Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk for his searing performance of Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major that formed the evening’s centerpiece. Mørk’s association with the Cincinnati Symphony goes back more than two decades. What a joy it was to witness his mastery in Shostakovich’s concerto, a post-Stalin work written in 1959 for Mstislav Rostropovich.
The cellist, who recorded both of Shostakovich’s concertos with Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, soared through the music’s formidable technical demands, attacking its spare, angular themes with intensity and vigor. If the outer movements were about fire and bravura, Mørk’s tone was almost vocal in the slow movement, where his big vibrato added a tinge of lyricism to Shostakovich’s melancholy themes.
Langrée concluded with a rewarding reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (Pathétique). Leading without a score, he brought emotional ardor and nuance to each phrase, and his orchestra responded with superb playing.
The orchestra’s “Diversity Fellows” were a welcome addition to the stage for this concert. A partnership between the Cincinnati Symphony and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, the groundbreaking program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation aims to improve diversity in American orchestras.
Janelle Gelfand, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, was classical music critic and arts writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 26 years. She is now a freelance arts writer, based in Cincinnati.