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Both conductor and soloist step in as substitutes and the result is unforgettable
Sir Andrew Davis
On Monday, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra lacked both a conductor and a soloist for its all-Brahms program on Friday.
Music director Louis Langrée was forced to withdraw from his “Brahms Fest” late last week due to the death of his father, and pianist Helene Grimaud followed, due to illness.
But by Friday morning, guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis stepped in to lead a rewarding performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in the orchestra’s temporary home at the Taft Theatre. And substituting for Grimaud, an Italian-born pianist named Alessio Bax tackled Brahms’ massive and formidable Piano Concerto No. 2.
The result was the most exciting debut in recent memory.
Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto is symphonic in scope, matching up piano and orchestra as equal partners. In four movements spanning more than 45 minutes, it’s also an endurance test for the pianist, calling for both nonstop technical prowess and expressive power.
In the second movement, a scherzo, the pianist seamlessly balanced poetry and drama. Davis was in absolute synch through the pianist's every change of mood.
The heart of this work is its slow movement, with an exquisite solo for cello. Principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn’s collaboration with the soloist was beautifully phrased, and the pianist’s singing tone and thoughtful give-and-take made it truly unforgettable. The finale was the picture of lightness, and Davis was careful not to overpower the pianist.
Listeners were on their feet, demanding bow after bow from the soloist.
Davis is currently music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago, and chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. His view of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, which opened the program, could not have been more radiant.
He led without a baton, emphasizing the lyrical quality of this music. His sense of joy was evident from the opening. There was a clarity to his direction that allowed each inner theme and orchestral solo to emerge, and each musical phrase to breathe.
The orchestra, fresh from its Asia tour, was in top form. Brass themes were controlled and well-balanced, and the horns sounded magnificent. The conductor inspired the most intensity of playing in the finale and brought it to a glowing conclusion.
The weekend concludes the tenure of CSO president Trey Devey, who is departing to head the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. While the board undergoes a search for his successor, the senior management team will lead the organization, said CSO spokesman Chris Pinelo.