Sunday, January 07, 2001

CSO rises to occasion of Russian music program

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For its first concert of 2001, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had a taste of the new generation of American conductors. If Michael Christie represents the future of music in this country, the future looks promising indeed.

        In his first visit to the CSO Friday morning, the 26-year-old maestro tackled an engaging all-Russian program that included Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite and Borodin's Symphony No. 2. The showstopper, though, was the rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 4 by Rachmaninoff, with the brilliant pianist Yefim Bronfman in the driver's seat.

        Only played here once before (in 1975), Rachmaninoff's Fourth does not have the lush textures and full-blown romantic themes of his other concertos. It gave the composer trouble; he made revisions over three decades, which likely accounts for its fragmented nature.

        Nevertheless, it is a spectacular showpiece. Although it offered plenty of fire and brimstone for the soloist, Mr. Bronfman's playing was much more than a display of virtuosity.

        The piano plunges immediately into a crazy quilt of continuously changing moods. Mr. Bronfman balanced the work's bravura cascades and thunderous chordal passages against its more intimate moments. More importantly, he projected its architecture, pushing ahead so momentum never dragged.

        Mr. Bronfman — who was born in the Soviet Union, immigrated to Israel and is now an American citizen — has a refined style that continues the tradition of his teachers, who included Rudolf Serkin. Lyrical passages were beautifully voiced. In the slow movement, he allowed sonorities to ring, and approached everything with control and a sense of direction.

        The scherzo-like finale was electrifying for its lightning speed, clarity and precision.

        Mr. Christie kept an excellent balance in the orchestra and stayed with the soloist every inch of the way. The sparse audience responded with a standing ovation.

        Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Christie is a protege of Daniel Barenboim and others; he has already conducted an impressive list of orchestras. His gestures are broad and clear, and he has an appealing presence on the podium. There were times, though, when I wished his beat was more flexible, and that transitions were more definite.

        That said, in the CSO's second-ever performance of the Lieutenant Kije Suite, the musicians responded with clean, engaging playing. The suite, from a film score, is the tongue-in-cheek “life story” of a fictitious lieutenant. Its colorful journey included offstage trumpet fanfares (Philip Collins) and a boisterous “Troika.”

        The program concluded with Borodin's Symphony No. 2. As a symphony, it's something of an oddity, with no great themes or thematic development. Mr. Christie handled that problem well, choosing good tempos and injecting a freshness of feeling, despite its repetitious quality.

        The only bona-fide theme came in the horn solo in the third movement (Robin Graham), answered expressively by the clarinet (Anthony McGill). The young maestro inspired lightness and precision, and the symphony concluded with a celebratory finale.


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