By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Violinist Gil Shaham is a musicians' musician - with a dash of the devil. When he began to fly in Ravel's Tzigane - the diabolical showpiece for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday night - you didn't want to miss a note of his breathtaking display.
The irrepressible American-Israeli violinist was soloist in the Ravel, as well as Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, for the CSO's season-concluding program in Music Hall. Music director emeritus Jesus Lopez-Cobos made a return visit to conduct Dvorak's little-played Symphony No. 3 and Cesar Franck's Morceau symphonique.
Stravinsky's neo-classical concerto is not of the romantic, virtuoso kind usually heard at the symphony. It is more like chamber music - lean and witty, with spiky harmonies, angular themes and engaging interplay between orchestral players and soloist.
The composer took his cue from Bach. Shaham's phrases in the opening "Toccata" were tongue-in-cheek and decisive, and his "attitude" gave the music bite. The violinist gave a glimpse of his 1699 Stradivarius' sweet, golden tone in the middle two "Aria" movements. The second one, in particular, was lovely for Shaham's seamless, arioso-like phrases, flawless intonation and dialogue with the flutes.
The finale, a "Capriccio," was high voltage, and the orchestra handled its tricky rhythms and meter changes well. Unfortunately, it wasn't a brilliant collaboration, overall; the soloist was completely swamped in the first movement. Lopez-Cobos' direction seemed tentative; the orchestra's playing lacked the sparkle and clarity that the piece demands.
So the more crowd-pleasing performance came after intermission, in Ravel's gypsy piece, Tzigane. If Stravinsky had no cadenza, this work was all flash. Shaham plunged into its opening rhapsody - a huge cadenza - with intensity, spontaneity and stunning intonation. He strolled, crouched and leapt as he handled double stops, hair-raising two-handed pizzicatos and the highest harmonics with electrifying showmanship.
His slower moments were colored with romantic slides and gorgeous tone. The orchestral accompaniment was magical, enhanced by harpist Gillian Benet Sella (back from a year's leave).
For the big finish, Shaham accelerated at superhuman speed, almost egging on the orchestra to follow, and the crowd was on its feet almost before it ended.
Lopez-Cobos concluded with an exuberant reading of Dvorak's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat. In this, the most Wagnerian of Dvorak's symphonies, the conductor was in his element, capturing the sweep and richness of the first movement, the Bohemian warmth of the second, and marching briskly through the finale. The piece offered ample opportunity for the horns to shine, including Milton Blalack, retiring after 38 years in the CSO.
The program opened with a directionless reading of Franck's Morceau symphonique, from his cantata, Redemption.
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