All-American Program Makes Majestic Season Closer

United StatesUnited States  Higdon, Barber, Copland: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati. 3.5.2013 (RDA)

Higdon: All Things Majestic
Barber: Piano Concerto
Copland: Symphony No. 3

Cincinnati celebrates its 225th birthday this year. Founded in 1788, the Queen City has developed into a major musical center that boasts a first-rank symphony orchestra, an important music conservatory, an internationally renowned opera and in between, everything from jazz to medieval music to you-name-it.

The final concert of the CSO’s 2012-2013 season brought together conductor Robert Spano and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in an all-American program, featuring the rhapsodic All Things Majestic (2011) by Jennifer Higdon, Samuel Barber’s daunting Piano Concerto, and Aaron Copland’s quintessentially American Third Symphony. The cumulative impact of this carefully assembled trio was stirring, and along with a terrific video presentation featuring photographs of Cincinnati for the Higdon piece, made for a joyous occasion.

Last fall, the CSO played Jennifer Higdon’s concerto for percussion and orchestra, which had a very positive impact. For the second time this season, Ms. Higdon’s music was again warmly received. All Things Majestic pays homage to the awesome beauty of Wyoming’s Tetons and the raw landscape of Jackson Hole. The work is pure music, with no hint of a program, expressing its rapture through sound alone, with writing that is melodic, accessible and impressive in scope and ambition. For this occasion, Ms. Higdon appended titles to each of the work’s four movements: “A Majestic Skyline,” “Neighborhoods and Nature,” “The River Runs By It,” and “Iconography of a Great American City.” The concept worked, for such is Ms. Higdon’s score that one can free-associate each of its sections with emotions and memories, be they about wilderness and mountains or about the beautiful urban landscape of Cincinnati. At 23 minutes, this is a perfect concert opener and a compelling new work that is finding its place in the standard concert repertory.

Barber’s Piano Concerto was written in 1960 with John Browning in mind, but its technical demands were such that he allegedly refused to play the final movement at the tempo specified by the composer. A compromise was finally struck and the premiere went on with no casualties other than a few minor bruises in the ego department.

Barber’s only concerto for the keyboard is, indeed, a Herculean one. The first movement is at first recitative-like, not wearing its emotion on its sleeve, but building on the same melodic idea using all sorts of inversions and contrapuntal devices as it gains momentum and crescendos towards its end. Barber then provides a second movement of elegiac calm before the fast and furious finale. That finale, with its notorious 5/8 ostinato is enough to put the fear of musical shipwreck in all but the most experienced of navigators. Garrick Ohlsson sailed through its treacherous currents and arrived safely on shore thanks to his enviable technique and assured musicality.

When Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 premiered in 1946, its asperities of sound may have been a bit challenging to audiences for whom anything written post-1900 was cacophony. But in 2013, Copland’s unpredictable harmonic digressions give but a mild frisson, and his all-American sound in both melody and orchestration provides the satisfaction one feels when visiting a close friend.

Alternately bracing and embracing, safe and provoking, this is the creative legacy of a superb composer. Throughout Copland uses snippets of his iconic Fanfare for the Common Man. The first movement is tranquil for the most part, but not so the restless second movement Allegro, that for a moment sits down like a tired traveler for a bucolic rest before marching on to a happy big ending. The third movement provides another section of reflection and quiet before it segues into the finale, when the fanfare returns to end with celebratory triumph.

Robert Spano led the Cincinnati musicians splendidly, never more so than in the Copland, which provided ample opportunities for each section to confirm the feeling that the ensemble is one of the finest orchestras in the country. For now I rest my case as the CSO musicians rest for a spell before picking up again their instruments to play in the upcoming May Festival. I will be back to cover some of the opera season in July. To all that music add the Cincinnati Reds, Skyline Chili and Graeter’s ice cream, and you’ll have to forgive this adopted son his proudly singing the praises of Cincinnati and its orchestra yet one more time.

Rafael de Acha