Saturday, February 27, 1999

Japanese conductor enlivens CSO

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Junichi Hirokami knows how to sell classical music.

        Short and slightly balding, the Japanese-born conductor may not look like the stereotypical orchestral maestro.

        But by the time he concluded Friday's program with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he had completely mesmerized Music Hall's audience with a rapturous performance of Prokofiev's ballet music to Romeo and Juliet. As during his visits in previous years, the orchestra afforded him the ultimate honor, refusing to stand so that he alone could accept the bravos from 1,676 listeners.

        Mr. Hirokami, 40, is gaining notice in the United States, following years of well-regarded work in Europe and Japan. He holds posts with the Limburg Symphony (Maastricht, Holland), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Japan Philharmonic.

        A visual conductor, Mr. Hirokami is fun to watch as he leaps, swoops and bounces. But if his gestures are effusive, none of his movements seems superficial. Indeed, they seem to spur the musicians to play with both precision and inspiration.

        In the Prokofiev suite, his interpretation was highly theatrical. With tempos on the brisk side, the music had an irresistible energy, yet it was never overdone. In the opening “Montagues and Capulets,” Mr. Hirokami expertly balanced the weightier, ominous overtones against lighter moments.

        The string texture was light and the ensemble was precise, yet melodies could be seductively lyrical. Mr. Hirokami brought out the wit and pointedness of moments such as “The Child Juliet,” which featured a charming clarinet solo (Richard Hawley).

        In every phrase, he found something special. The cello section played with stunning warmth in the romantic theme of the Balcony Scene; the “Death of Tybalt” was forceful and dramatic as the musicians responded to Mr. Hirokami's combative thrusts.

        The work concluded as theatrically as it began, aided by Mr. Hirokami's dramatic sense of timing.

        The evening's soloist was the Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov in Mozart's lesser-known Concerto No. 2 in D, K.211. Mr. Spivakov, who is the founder of the Moscow Virtuosi, sacrificed character and color for precision and fleetness, and some of the passagework became tedious. His phrases were given warmth in the Andante, however, and the finale had a note of playfulness, all aided by the excellent collaboration by Mr. Hirokami and the orchestra.

        Mr. Hirokami opened with the CSO premiere of a work by his countryman Toru Takemitsu, who died in 1996. Twill by Twilight was a neo-impressionistic piece with slow-moving, soft blocks of sound shimmering with touches of color. Mr. Hirokami brought out its subtle shadings beautifully.

        The CSO repeats at 8 p.m. today. Tickets: 381-3300.


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