By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Tuesday's Bach and Beyond concert by Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra members was proof that sometimes what you expect is not what you get.
One might have expected Mozart's much-loved Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major to be the highlight of the program in University of Cincinnati's Corbett Auditorium that included works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Fred Rzewski and Juan Arriaga. In fact, it was just the opposite: The Mozart, performed by pianist Ursula Oppens, was a big disappointment and the three others were strikingly attractive.
Although fear of the unknown may have been the reason for the small turnout - the crowd was considerably smaller than last week's all-Bach show - distinguished artist Jaime Laredo's program was one of the most innovative heard in Cincinnati this season.
He opened with Zwilich's Concerto Grosso 1985, a remarkable piece inspired by Handel's Violin Sonata No. 4 in D Major. Well-crafted and tonal, with only mild dissonances, its fast outer movements included phrases from the sonata that alternated with a stunning theme of Zwilich's own invention.
Laredo was a dedicated leader, though the orchestra was somewhat under-rehearsed. The most powerful moment came in the Largo, a dark, chromatic movement whose coolness and angular themes echoed Shostakovich.
Oppens has been on the cutting edge of classical music for decades; in 1985, she performed the Elliott Carter Piano Concerto with the CSO under Michael Gielen. On Tuesday, she was a superb interpreter of Rzewski's 1979 piano solo, "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues," but her insecure performance of Mozart threatened to derail the performance several times.
One of the most original of today's American mavericks, Rzewski often takes his inspiration from social issues. His "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues" is based on a 1930s folk song about the working poor in a North Carolina textile factory.
Oppens strolled out singing the original song, then launched into a bass ostinato pattern that steadily grew more pounding: the mill machine. Her technique was formidable, whether during dense, percussive sections or the bluesy, jazz-inspired moments. The piece was evocative and imaginative and Oppens built up excitement by using her fists and forearms.
The audience gave it warm approval, and the composer, who has taught at the UC's College-Conservatory of Music and is a frequent guest faculty, took a bow.
Oppens' performance of Mozart's Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 271, was a puzzling contrast. Here, her technique was frustrating: one minute pristine, the next muddy. She struggled through the first movement, became lost several times (Laredo gamely kept conducting while she ad-libbed) and had a tendency to rush.
It was more than just a memory problem. Although the finale had some of Mozart's "opera buffa" quality, her playing missed the sparkle, joy and humor of this work, and I wished for more lightness and singing tone.
The concert ended with Symphony in D Major, a little-known gem by the "Spanish Mozart," 19th-century composer Juan Arriaga. The CSO's playing was convincing, and Laredo shaped its phrases with care.
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