Review: CSO concert riffs on concerto theme

03.23.13
Mei-Ann Chen
Cincinnati Enquirer

By Mary Ellyn Hutton

When composer Jennifer Higdon, creative director of the Cincinnati Symphony’s Boundless Series, planned Friday night’s concert at Music Hall, she had a given, piano great Andre Watts and Beethoven?s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”).

With the addition of her own Concerto for Orchestra (2002) and “Poem from a Vanished Time,” a world premiere by Zhou Tian which features solo violin prominently, the entire concert had a quasi-concerto theme.

On the podium was Taiwanese conductor Mei-Ann Chen, as dynamic a conductor as one could imagine.

It made for one of the most creative – and most enjoyable – concerts heard at Music Hall this season.

Zhou’s “Poem,” a CSO commission, opened the concert on a lush, neo-impressionistic note. The work recalls a vanished China, one replaced by industrialization. Concertmaster Timothy Lees was the soloist, giving the work its heart in two aria-like episodes. The cumulative effect was one of joy, never sorrow. A playful, folk-like tune inserted toward the end sealed it with nostalgia. Zhou, 30, was present to receive the crowd’s warm applause.

If one had any doubt that the CSO is a virtuoso orchestra of the highest order, it was dispelled by their performance of Higdon’s challenging work, a CSO premiere. A “concerto for orchestra” showcases the entire ensemble (Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is the seminal work), and the light of Higdon’s imagination illumined every section of the orchestra. There were solos for everyone in its five movements, one just for strings and one just for percussion, harp and celesta. It was the latter, with principal timpanist Patrick Schleker joining his three CSO colleagues on everything from chimes to slapstick, that wowed the audience.

If anyone owns Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, it is Watts, who gave it a magisterial performance. His command was total – of color, gesture and the kind of inevitability that makes for a compelling musical experience. Chen was with him every step of the way, offering a closely synchronized, beautifully sculpted accompaniment.