Thursday, July 3, 2003

Ionnides leads symphony through pleasing mix

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A snowstorm canceled her planned debut in February. On Tuesday, Sarah Ioannides, the first woman on the full-time conducting staff of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, finally took her first bows with the CSO.

The orchestra's Bach & Beyond series for small orchestra was a good chance to see Ioannides' work close-up, in the intimate, acoustically warm surroundings of Corbett Auditorium on the University of Cincinnati campus.

Ioannides has a clear technique and is an appealing presence on the podium. Although I wished for more confidence and authority, the orchestra played well for her, twice bringing the good-sized crowd to its feet.

Her program was an audience-pleasing mix that ranged from Estonian composer Arvo Part to Prokofiev's Classical Symphony.

The evening's highlight was the centerpiece: Shostakovich's Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, with debuting pianist Wendy Chen and CSO principal trumpeter Philip Collins. Chen, who has technique to burn, brought power and bite to the music, culminating in a breathtakingly brilliant finale.

She easily handled the concerto's percussive effects, fiendish pianistic figures, bass leaps and ripping glissandos. The first movement was edgy and a bit frantic - she rushed through moments, and sometimes substituted speed for sparkle.

But her slow movement was relaxed, and she projected phrasing that had real depth of feeling. The pianist's technique in the finale was pointed and powerful, as she tossed off knuckle-breaking passages with absolute mastery.

Collins was a superb co-soloist, who phrased with character, and seamlessly stayed with the pianist, even when she surged ahead. The orchestra's collaboration, though, was at odds with the pianist in the first movement, but improved.

Ioannides opened with Part's Collage on B-A-C-H, a play on the notes spelling out J.S. Bach's name, evoking a Baroque suite. Although metronomic at first, it soon became mesmerizing.

The most interesting was the "Sarabande," which alternated a Baroque oboe theme (played somewhat dryly by Richard Johnson) and 20th-century-style chord clusters.

In the second half, Ioannides inspired lushness in the strings in Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly's Summer Evening, a tone poem with nostalgic folk melodies and gorgeous colors. The plaintive English horn solo (by Leonid Sirotkin, a CCM graduate student) set off the piece wonderfully.

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, Classical, was a brilliant conclusion that showed off the effortless virtuosity of the CSO musicians. Ioannides' personal stamp was one of clarity: The fast outer movements were angular and light - and had a quirky, mechanical wit.


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