A City Embraces a New Music Director

United StatesUnited States Higdon, Copland, Beethoven: eighth blackbird, Maya Angelou (narrator), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Music Director), Cincinnati Music Hall, 11.11.13 

Jennifer Higdon: On A Wire
Copland: A Lincoln Portrait
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

Having led several Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concerts in the past, Louis Langrée has now assumed the position of Music Director. Returning for a trio of concerts, he has obviously already engaged the attention of his players with his authoritative leadership and his utterly Gallic charm.

Well regarded as a Mozartian (he has also served as Music Director and savior of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center), the French maestro comfortably traveled in the 20th century during the program’s first half, starting with Jennifer Higdon’s On A Wire. He followed it with an impassioned account of Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, admirably played by the Cincinnati musicians, and sublimely narrated by Dr. Maya Angelou to the accompaniment of a visually compelling montage of vintage 19th-century photography, curated by James Westwater.

A concerto for chamber ensemble and orchestra, Jennifer Higdon’s On A Wire highlights the group eighth blackbird as the virtuosic ensemble it has become, allowing each of its six members—Michael J. Maccaferri (clarinets) Tim Munro (flutes), Yvonne Lam (violin and viola), Matthew Duvall (percussion), Lisa Kaplan (piano) and Nicholas Photinos (cello) to appear both as a chamber group and as individual soloists. They freely moved about the stage—miraculously blowing, bowing, banging flutes, clarinets, string instruments, marimba and piano—often huddled football-style around an open grand piano, as they elicited unheard-of sounds from its innards. They are marvelous to hear and a sight to behold.

Jointly commissioned by several orchestras and receiving its Cincinnati premiere, On a Wire juxtaposes the sextet’s quirky and often virtuosic playing with the massive sonorities of the orchestra. In 25 minutes of intense, agitated, syncopated gestures, it moves forward at full speed ahead, albeit with a couple of quiet respites. It is a tonally ambiguous work that never becomes grating in its dissonances.

More than other composers of her generation, Higdon—whose All Things Majestic and Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra have been played by the CSO—writes in a style that appeals to the younger segment of our conservative subscription audience, and the musicians seemed to have fun with the piece. Did I like it? Of course, I did. Did the rest of the largely superannuated audience like it? Judging from the warm and long applause at the end, the answer was “yes.” Higdon should be invited back to share her sassy, brassy, in-your-face style with us and shake up things a bit more.

Much has been written about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and its meaning—much of it elaborated, supposed, attributed to the composer but actually conceived, imagined and invented by critics, musicologists and even his secretary, Anton Schindler.

The famous opening of the first movement—with its four-note, repeated motif spelling out the work’s C minor tonality—may or may not represent “Fate knocking at the door.” I prefer my Beethoven as pure music, with no scenario imposed upon it. Struggle and triumph are embedded into this masterpiece using complex harmonic and contrapuntal terms, rather than a narrative. Whatever we want to make of Beethoven’s Fifth, as we create our own mental pictures while listening to it, is our business and no one else’s.

From the straightforward opening motif, so often taken at a ponderous tempo, Langrée kept a firm but gentle hand, preventing the sound and the fury from overwhelming the whole. He mined the liveliness and buoyancy of Beethoven’s writing, taking the opening Allegro at a fast clip that kept the lower strings working at top capacity, and kept many in the audience on the edge of their seats. The march through the Andante had dignity without Teutonic solemnity. In the Scherzo and Allegro, Langrée brought out the inner voices and the delicate aspects, then leaped baton-first into a hair-raising build towards the precipitous final stretto and coda, all throughout balancing the Classical and Romantic aspects in a performance this listener will long remember.

One could sense the cathartic feeling in the audience, when the music returns to the tonal terra firma of C major. As he proved once more, the maestro’s beat is clear, his cueing is precise, his communicative powers beyond question. But above all, he is a musician’s musician, with the soul and intellect to take Cincinnati’s wonderful orchestra to a yet higher plateau. All around us, the audience were on their feet, cheering its world class musicians led by a conductor who seems to have embraced them—and been embraced back by this city and its public.

Rafael de Acha


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