A woman on the podium
Because my Saturday night review won't make the paper until Monday, here it is. The concert repeats at 3 p.m. today in Music Hall, with $5 seats for kids. You'll be home in plenty of time for the Super Bowl kick-off:
Although it’s not unusual to see a woman on the conducting podium, it’s still an all too rare occurrence at most major symphony orchestras. On Saturday, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra welcomed guest maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson, a 38-year-old Winnipeg native and former associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony, in her Music Hall debut.
Wilson’s engaging program began with the orchestra’s first performance of music by gifted American composer Michael Hersch and ended with an enjoyable reading of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, "Reformation." The evening’s most impressive music making, though, occurred in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, with the Irish pianist Barry Douglas.
Douglas, who won the gold medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, is known for his brilliant performances of large-scale romantic music. So it was interesting to see how he would approach Beethoven’s First Concerto, in a classical vein patterned after Mozart.
His view was decidedly romantic, with a smoldering passion just under the surface. He wasn’t at all flamboyant, though sometimes he leaned back, eyes closed, to strike the right tone. Douglas’s runs were spectacular. He projected a gorgeous singing tone and plenty of intensity when needed.
No two phrases were shaped the same way. The pianist used rubato tastefully, pushing ahead and pulling back, and tossed off treacherous one-handed octave glissandos and chromatic passages without flinching.
It was a refreshing display of individuality. He took the slow movement into another world – poetic, serene and sonorous, where a beautiful dialogue unfolded with the winds. The finale was exuberant and full of color, and the crowd gave it an enthusiastic reception.
Wilson’s view, though, didn’t match the pianist’s fire, and they weren’t together at first. The orchestra’s exposition and tutti passages were light and clean, but without weight. Nevertheless, you heard the pianist’s every note.
The concert opened with Hersch’s "Ashes of Memory" (second movement), premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2000. It began with an arresting, dark drone in low strings, punctuated by harp, piano and percussion. It was a deeply emotional piece, with faintly dissonant wind themes reminiscent of Shostakovich and tumultuous brass buildups.
Wilson was a confident, clear leader in this dynamic piece, as well as Mendelssohn’s "Reformation" Symphony, which concluded the evening. Statuesque and long-limbed, she was an elegant presence, whose blonde ponytail whipped around in the frenzied moments.
Conducting without a score, she set a warmly affirmative tone in Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony, which uses the religious motive, the "Dresden Amen," pervasively, and ends with a movement based on Martin Luther’s "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
The musicians responded with inspired playing, from the stunning precision and warmth of the opening brass chorale to the superb sonority of the strings. The first movement allegro had momentum and intensity; the scherzo was buoyant and gentle, and the slow movement glowed.
Wilson’s ear for balance was extraordinary; the finale, with its great, organ-like textures had an unusual lightness and transparency, and the hymn rang out majestically. She’s definitely a talent to watch.