By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
There's no better time than the present to celebrate America, and at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Saturday night, there was an American celebration. At the end of the concert led by guest conductor William Eddins two things were abundantly clear: orchestras steeped in the European tradition need to play more music by Americans, and Mr. Eddins needs to come back - and often.
A deafening cheer went up as the conductor/pianist struck the final chord of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the centerpiece of his all-American program in Music Hall. He stepped in to perform double duty when his soloist, pianist John Browning, canceled because of illness last week. Substituting Gershwin's jazz concerto in its 1924 Paul Whiteman Orchestra version for the Barber Concerto was a gutsy move, but Mr. Eddins pulled it off wonderfully - and with more than a little showmanship.
With the CSO scaled down to a dance band-size of 26 players (including saxophones), clarinetist Richard Hawley began that great opening smear, stretching and bending its final notes. Mr. Eddins, 38, stood as he led the orchestral introduction, then dashed to his piano bench, where he led with hands, head and sometimes feet.
He gave it an athletic performance. An accomplished pianist, Mr. Eddins has a powerful, clear technique and a natural feel for the jazz idiom. Tempos were quick, but he was very free - though sometimes a bit breathless - in his solos.
The ensemble was well balanced; indeed, the 1924 version (played at the CSO for the first time) allowed instrumental licks to stand out. Only once, in the strings' broad Rhapsody theme, did I wish for more saxophone color. The musicians played like they were having fun, but no one so much as Mr. Eddins, and the audience leaped to its feet with a roar.
With John Alden Carpenter's jazzy Suite from Skyscapers, which opened the concert, the evening had a lighthearted feel. Ballet Russe impresario Serge Diaghilev commissioned the American composer to write a ballet about American life, for a tour that never materialized. The result was Skyscapers, a busy, multi-layered score that straddles the jazz world of Gershwin and 1920s Paris.
Leading without a baton, Mr. Eddins seemed to inhabit every note and rhythm, and the orchestra responded with energized playing. The ballet's scenes, illustrating work and play in America in the '20s, were colorful and descriptive. It was whimsical and fun; the orchestration included saxophones, two pianos, banjo and lots of brass.
The evening concluded with Copland's landmark Symphony No. 3. It flowed in one continuous arc, from the serene landscape of Copland's wide-open prairies, to the familiar Fanfare for the Common Man of the fourth movement - where Mr. Eddins unleashed the full power of the Cincinnati brass and timpani.
It's the kind of music an American orchestra is born to play. Mr. Eddins, who alternately danced, crouched and punched the air, inspired a bright sound, and brought out inner details with ringing precision. The intensity built in great sweeps, until the final moments, a stirring conclusion to an exhilarating evening.
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