Sunday, March 25, 2001

Concert review: CSO

Violinist delights with Dvorak

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Although he has played in Cincinnati several times, Gil Shaham's easy virtuosity continues to astonish.

        The violinist put his artistry to work in Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A Minor with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday morning, in a concert hailing the 125th anniversary of Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.

        His Dvorak was a winning combination of personal charm, flawless skill and genuine feeling. Mr. Shaham returned after intermission to play a suite from the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler's List. It was eloquent and touching, and it moved the audience to a second standing ovation.

        But with Schindler's List and a world premiere by Joel Hoffman on a Holocaust theme, which opened the program, the puzzler was why Maestro Jesus Lopez-Cobos would want to close with Mahler's Todtenfeier, a funeral march. It was a poor choice, as if dwelling on the darkest moment in Jewish history, in effect turning a celebration into a dirge. A lighter piece would have been more suitable.

        The full orchestra and a complement of percussion were onstage for Mr. Hoffman's The Smile, commissioned by HUC. The work is part of Mr. Hoffman's forthcoming opera, The Memory Game, on the life of Mordechai Gebirtig, a Polish-Jewish poet and songwriter from Krakow.

        The Smile describes one of the opera's final scenes, when Gebirtig smiles during a forced march with other prisoners in 1942 and is shot by a Nazi guard. The piece, the composer said, “is a reflection on the sorts of things that might have gone through his mind on this last day of his life.”

        Indeed, it seemed to drift between the “reality” of the death march and a dream world of happier reminiscences. It opened with a pulsating, shimmering texture that grew darker and more intense with grating cries in the brass. Serene, fragmented tunes in the winds were jerked back by staccato passages in the trumpets.

        A haunting clarinet tune and several folk-like passages stood out, colored by mandolin and the sounds of cimbalom and accordion (played on synthesizer). Mr. Lopez-Cobos and the musicians gave it a dedicated reading, and Mr. Hoffman, a professor of composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, took a bow.

        Mr. Shaham, 30, entered wearing a red tie and broad smile, and plunged into the Dvorak Violin Concerto with intensity, conviction and a sense of joy. He planted himself between the maestro and the orchestra, often turning to communicate with the orchestra.

        The tone on his ""Countess Polignac” Strad was warm and gorgeous, as he leaned back on his heels to hit a high harmonic, yet he could let fly with technical virtuosities effortlessly.

        The slow movement was beguiling and sweet; the way he used vibrato and romantic slides reminded one of the golden era of violin playing.

        He was mesmerizing as he launched into the dance-like finale, bringing lovely expression to the somber Dumka at its center.

        The Three Pieces from Schindler's List by John Williams were heartfelt and poignant, and Mr. Shaham played exquisitely. I can't think of another young violinist I'd rather hear right now. Mr. Lopez-Cobos and the CSO supported him with sensitivity.

        Mahler's Todtenfeier is an early version of the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” Mr. Lopez-Cobos led a reading of strong contrasts, from the dark, gritty sound of the opening cello passages and the dramatic power of the brass, to the serene moments, played with warmth by the violins and horns.


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