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Uncommon Playing For A Commonplace Program

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
01/08/2016 -  & November 28, 29, 2015 (Cincinnati)
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23 – Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64
Alexander Gavrylyuk (Pianist)
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Conductor)

L. Langrée (© Richard Termine)

“Oh, Cincinnati has lots of things to do. We have a great zoo…And the chili! You should try our Cincinnati chili. It’s the best. And go to the zoo. Believe me, once you have our chili, you won’t want it anywhere else.”

Writer-Director Charlie Kaufman, from Amonalisa

Nothing about the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is in Charlie Kaufman’s Cincinnati-set latest masterpiece. And while the Wikipedia article about the arts in Cincinnati appropriately mentions Rosie Clooney, Fats Waller and Dinah Shore, it too ignore the CSO. A regrettable sin of omission in both cases, since the CSO is America’s sixth oldest orchestra, going strong for 120 years. And while Cincinnati has passed its early 19th Century heyday as “America’s city” with its strategic settlement on the Ohio River the orchestra has enjoyed leaders of remarkable standards. Stokowski, Reiner, Schippers and violin legend Eugène Ysaÿe have led the ensemble, as well as its present leader, well known here, Louis Langrée.

Even more interesting, conservative Cincinnati has commissioned many a world premiere, including works by David Lang, Nico Muhly and, many years ago, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man amongst dozens of other pieces.

So it was unexpected that their choices for the 25th Season of Lincoln Center “Symphonic Masters” last night was a curiously commonplace one. Specifically, the Fifth Symphony and First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky.

Hardly defective pieces in themselves. But–to say the least–this was shopworn, commonplace music. Visiting Russian orchestras can get away with growling Tchaikovsky in their own way. Glamorous young Russian pianists pound their way through the Concerto with vertiginous joy. But French-born Louis Langrée and this “heartland” American orchestra could easily have come up with anything more creative than this.

No doubt the Ohio Riverboat captains, hog-butchers and plantation owners in adjacent Kentucky relish their Tchaikovsky. And yes, David Geffen Hall was packed last night, perhaps with a plethora of Ohioans (every second person had an I-camera, most taking selfies in the hall). But one doubts that more audaciously-minded New Yorkers would have made the trip for such music.

Still, as we Gothamites all know, Mr Langrée is synonymous with our “Mostly Mozart” festival each summer, and his proficiency is beyond question. Consequently, he did lead the CSO with an exciting enough Fifth Symphony. The orchestra is well-balanced, it has a terrific string section (shown best, perhaps in a luscious excerpt from Nutcracker as an encore) and their first chair players are excellent.

Rare is such faultless horn-playing as Elizabeth Freimuth in the second movement, while the opening clarinets, Jonthan Gunn and Ixi Chen, were suitably gloomy. The star was of course Mr. Langrée, always a pleasure to watch, and for three movements he led an unidiosyncratic but perfectly enjoyable performance.

His most personal moment came in the finale, when, after the introduction, he whipped the whole CSO not into the Allegro vivace but a virtual Allegro con fuoco, measures of sheer ferocity. The orchestra was controlled, but the tensions were palpable, and even the coda had a commanding fury.

Other conductors might have used this to bring the house to its collective feet (which it did), but Mr. Langrée was evidently looking for the logical conclusion to Tchaikovsky’s catharsis.

The opening work was a strange Concerto by the 30-year-old pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. For all his technical prowess, he presented a most un-Russian Tchaikovsky.

His opening was spacious, not forceful, the development sounded almost improvisational, with drawn-out retards. One could not fault that commanding cadenza, the beautiful double octaves, his rich tones and broad spectrum. Perhaps we were spoiled by last month’s dazzling performances by Daniil Trifonov. But Mr. Gavrylyuk seemed to play the first movement for himself, rather than an audience which wanted the usual thrills from the piece.

The Andantino started with a luscious flute solo by Randolph Bowman and the pianist continued with moments which came more from Schumann (if not Chopin). That illusion was, thankfully shattered by the scherzo, which showed the artist at his very best. His fingers played the prestissimo not limpidly but liquidly, a river of surging tides and waves. The finale continued this technically superb performance, and a brief cadenza of real Russian (or in this case, Ukrainian) power.

With his encore, the Chopin D-flat Nocturne, one saw where Mr. Gavrylyuk’s heart lay. He is an unashamed romantic, and oh, how I envy those who go to his recital this Sunday. The time is 11 am, the venue is Walter Reed Theater, and while the program is not listed, I have the feeling it may show him as an artist who prefers to go his own way rather than dueling with an orchestra.

Harry Rolnick



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