REVIEW: Saint-Saëns' ‘Organ' Symphony a rare treat at CSO

The program, which also included works by Gounod, Bizet and Franck, was very well received by the audience.The music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Louis Langre, led a French program that concluded with Saint-Sans' romantic 'Organ' Symphony on May 5 at Music Hall. The program was al

REVIEW: Saint-Saëns' ‘Organ' Symphony a rare treat at CSO

The luxuriant sonorities of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. The 'Organ' Symphony is Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 in C Minor. The finale is when the organist plays that stroke of genius - the majestic C Major chord. Music Hall's audiences sat up when the organ chord exploded like a ray or sunlight.

Louis Langree, the music director of the orchestra, was in town for a French concert that culminated with Saint-Saens' romantic "Organ" Symphony. Ravel's Piano Concerto G Major was the centerpiece of this program, with Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson performing as soloist. The program began with a Berlioz Overture to "Les France-juges" ('The Judges of the Secret Court"), a piece that is not well-known.

Saint-Saens is best known for his opera 'Samson et Delila' and the Third Symphony. The colorful orchestration also includes cascades of four-hand arpeggios, played by Michael Unger at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. Saint-Saens’ sumptuous compositions evoke the symphonic poetry of Franz Liszt, Saint-Saens’ mentor. The organ is the star of the show, and the finale features organ, timpani, brass and cymbals.

Langree conducted the opening movements without a score. He encouraged romantic depth in the sound of the string. The textures were crisp and each phrase was expressively formed. The 'Poco adagio,' with its lush strings and murmur organ, had an almost spiritual quality. The third movement was a scherzo with its color-filled flourishes on the piano (Michael Chertock, Julie Spangler), and pizzicato bass. Next came the thrilling finale. Langree, a dynamic leader, allowed every detail to come to light as the orchestra moved from a somber fugue to chorale and gradually built to the powerful summit.

Unger's playing on Music Hall's Allen Organ was seamless. It provided both subtlety and thunderous power. Music Hall hasn't had a pipe-organ since the historic Hook & Hastings Organ was discarded early in the 1970s. The musicians of the orchestra responded with a precise and refined playing. The audience gave extended ovations at the end of the concert.

Olafsson made his Cincinnati Symphony debut with Ravel's Concerto G Major in the first half. The selection was altered from the previously announced CSO Co-Commission of a Mark Simpson concerto. Olafsson's recordings with Deutsche Grammophon have been a huge success, with over 400 million career streams. He has also won prestigious awards like Gramophone Artist of the year (2019).

Ravel's G Major Concerto is influenced by American jazz in particular its first movement. The pianist displayed a large, easy technique in its sparkling passagework. He took his time with the jazzy, languid melodies in this work. The solo harp passage was played beautifully by Gillian Benet Sella, principal harpist.

Slow movement was most impressive, with the pianist taking an introspective approach. Each note of the long solo phrase that opens was felt deeply. The filigree of the piano fell like raindrops when English hornist Christopher Philpotts played the theme. It was the fastest finale I've heard. It was both exciting and frantic. Langree was there for the artist at every stage, and both the orchestra and soloists excelled despite the fast tempos.

Olafsson's encore was a piece from the French Baroque, Jean-Phllippe Rameau’s ‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’, with crystalline touches and tasteful embellishments. We hope to see him again soon.

Another debut was also made. The orchestra performed its first concert on the newly acquired Steinway grand piano.

Before the concert, CEO Jonathan Martin revealed that emeritus member Randolph Wadsworth Jr., and his late spouse Sallie, had endowed a chair for assistant principal trombone. Joseph Rodriguez is the current holder of this chair. Martin said that this is the third endowed chair for the couple. He added that 70% seats in the orchestra are endowed.