Sunday, March 12, 2000

Violinist Oundjian shines in CSO conducting debut

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After 15 years sitting in the first violin chair of the Tokyo String Quartet, Peter Oundjian is carving out a career on the podium.

        In his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut Friday night, Mr. Oundjian proved to be an exuberant conductor, often throwing his whole body into his direction with the same ardor that he once displayed playing string quartets.

        His confidence and musicianship were best reflected in the evening's opening work, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Based on a 16th-century theme, the work also uses ancient church modes. So, although it was played by full string orchestra, it had a compellingly archaic sound.

        The strings responded well to Mr. Oundjian's direction, and he effectively captured the spacious sonorities that give the work its “cathedral” sound. The most remarkable feature was the muted echo effect created by a small ensemble seated on risers behind the orchestra.

        Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, 33, brought a big virtuoso technique to Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2, in his Music Hall debut. (He appeared at Riverbend in 1997.)

        Mr. Kavakos, a native of Athens, Greece, plays with plenty of fire. He has a formidable ability to dispatch high harmonics, glissandos and light ning passagework easily. His tone is beautiful, as projected in the poignant theme of the slow movement.

        A high point came in a scherzo-like variation in the Andante, which he attacked with almost supernatural lightness and stunning bow control.

        The violinist stood in the orchestra's center and focused on the conductor, hardly moving as he played. It wasn't until the finale that he relaxed and seemed to enjoy its diabolical fireworks.

        But oddly, something was missing — whether more soul or more cohesiveness between all of the parts. He seemed a reluctant showman; I wished he had communicated more with the audience.

        The orchestra's balance was excellent, and Mr. Oundjian stayed with him every inch of the way. However, the musicians sometimes lagged behind the soloist, causing the performance to lose spontaneity.

        The audience of 1,119 gave the warmest ovation to the concluding Symphony No. 1, Winter Dreams, by Tchaikovsky. Its weakness is that Tchaikovsky's musical personality was not yet well developed.

        Mr. Oundjian made an appealing case for the work, although more detail of phrasing would have made the reading more convincing. The strings responded to his direction with excellent ensemble work; Mr. Oundjian whipped up an exciting climax in the finale.


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