Percussion Storm and Two Doomed Lovers

United StatesUnited States Ravel, Higdon, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff: Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussionist), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Peter Oundjian (guest conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH. 03.10.12 (RDA)

Ravel: Alborada del gracioso
Higdon: Percussion Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini
Rimsky-Korsakoff: Capriccio espagnol

Maurice Ravel composed Miroirs for the piano and later orchestrated its fourth movement, Alborada del Gracioso (Morning Song of a Clown). Unpredictable in its rhythms and orchestral colorings, the brief,spirited music embodies the antics of the clowns of the Spanish Golden Age Theatre. It provided a festive opening for this concert, played with precision and gusto by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Peter Oundjian.

Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto begins with an almost imperceptible entrance at the top of the first movement, with the soloist using the soft mallets to play gentle figures on the marimba, glockenspiel and vibraphone—a deceptive start that offers no hint of the sonic storm to come. The work is mostly tonal, complex in its harmonies, driven in its rhythms, jazzy at times. Its final section, including a very difficult cadenza, gave Cincinnatians the opportunity to hear one of the world’s rare virtuoso percussionists, Evelyn Glennie, at her most impressive. Glennie caresses the glockenspiel, attacks the cymbals, and coaxes the marimba and the xylophone to sing—she is a force of nature. In Higdon’s concerto she cut loose, showing exuberance and fine musicianship, and at the end brought the Cincinnati audience to its feet. Maestro Oundjian shared the applause with her and the orchestra, along with Ms. Higdon, who also came out for a bow.

In the Inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy the narrating poet encounters the ghosts of two lovers damned as adulterers and punished by forever being locked in a gory final embrace, both impaled by a single sword. Simultaneously, they are caught in a fierce whirlwind and being tortured by memories of the earthly lovemaking that will never again be theirs. In Francesca da Rimini, Tchaikovsky expresses the couple’s torment and yearning with a brooding opening theme that soon breaks into a stormy Allegro. Building gradually in momentum, it then subsides, then picks up speed once again—all representing the two dead beings forever unable to achieve consummation.

Evoking the lovers’ former earthly delights, clarinetist Jonathan Gunn offered a poignant, flawlessly played solo, while the CSO portrayed the lovers’ travails in vibrant colors, leaving no doubt as to the magnitude of the infernal and inclement weather to which Francesca and Paolo are condemned.

Spanish folk melodies inspired Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Capriccio Espagnol, a work more Slavic than Spanish in flavor, though unarguably lively, rhythmic and infectious. Its composer initially thought of it as a violin concerto, but expanded it to an orchestral suite in five movements. The Cincinnatians—extraordinary players—plunged themselves into this Russian warhorse with aplomb and earned a well-deserved ovation at the end of the evening.

Rafael de Acha

Rafael de Acha is a writer and musician based in Cincinnati.