The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s season opened at the Taft Theatre this month, and the two performances I attended were outstanding. The theater — a temporary home for the CSO during Music Hall’s renovation — has great acoustics, and the CSO is playing better than ever there. The featured artists — Emanuel Ax and Hilary Hahn — were also at the top of their game.
Now in his mid-60s, pianist Ax’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat (“Emperor”) had a master’s authority and youthful exuberance. CSO conductor Louis Langrée drew sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra, with gorgeous textures from strings and woodwinds. After three curtain calls, Ax played “Am Abend (In the Evening)” from German composer Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, a lovely contrast to the “Emperor’s” rousing conclusion.
The CSO returned for Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s enigmatic Symphony No. 5 in D minor, a work composed supposedly in response to the Stalin regime’s criticism of the composer. Shostakovich conformed to the complaints, but not completely. The CSO’s powerful performance brought out the work’s despair and sly humor. Langrée’s masterful direction allowed even the most subdued passages to resonate.
Last weekend’s concert opened with Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, originally written as a birthday gift for the composer’s wife, Clara. Schumann was not a great orchestrator; Langrée’s crisp, authoritative reading brought out the work’s inherent lyricism.
This evening belonged to violinist Hahn, who gave a revelatory performance of Beethoven’s Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra. As the orchestra played the lengthy introduction, she turned to the string sections and leaned in, as if absorbing the music before her entrance.
Hahn’s rendition created a three-part drama, enhanced by attentive playing from the CSO. She took the first movement’s tempo marking — “allegro, but not too much” — as a guide, and gave a brooding, wistful quality to the movement’s themes, concluding with a beautifully executed cadenza.
The second movement was even more plaintive, but there was a heartfelt lyricism, especially in the duet passages with the winds. Hahn’s mastery was evident in the exquisite control of dynamics and elegant phrasing.
The orchestra segued into the final movement that became the drama’s happy ending. As if all restraints were lifted, Hahn played with exuberance, literally making the music dance. Again, perfection in the final challenging cadenza, and the final release brought the audience to its feet. For an encore, Hahn offered a playful Bach violin solo piece, fluid and graceful.
These two performances set the standard for the rest of the season, and put aside any lingering doubts about how the unamplified orchestra would sound in the Taft Theatre.
The answer is: glorious. I was grinning from the moment the great pianist Ax played the opening chords of Beethoven’s “Emperor.” From where I sat, in the high reaches of the Taft’s balcony, there was a crisp immediacy to the sound that was vastly superior to Music Hall — at least, pre-renovation.
I sat in different areas of the hall for each concert, and the sound quality was consistently high. There’s less decay -- meaning the amount of time it takes for sound to fade into silence -- and the result is a transparent clarity of sound that’s especially effective in piano (soft) passages.
If there’s slightly less warmth, there’s also less muddiness; the overall cohesive sound is terrific. Thanks to the geniuses at Akustiks, the firm also overseeing the much-needed acoustic renovations in Music Hall, a new shell was constructed at the Taft in addition to overhead sound baffles.
The Taft isn’t a perfect venue. There are complaints about bathrooms, the small lobby, etc. But don’t let that stop you. Go for the acoustics. The CSO has always been a great orchestra, and now you can really hear how great it is.
The CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA performs The Pelléas Trilogy Part Ii: Water Friday and Saturday. More info: cincinnatisymphony.org.