Nearly 74 years after Eugene Goossens put the finishing touches on his Symphony No. 2 in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave its Music Hall premiere.
Goossens’ Symphony may have been an unknown curiosity to most concertgoers in Saturday’s Cincinnati Symphony concert, the first of 2018. But guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis made a strong case for the work, which turned out to be a surprisingly good piece that was well-executed by the orchestra.
Frigid temperatures didn’t keep the audience away, for there was also a very fine known entity on the program. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, in his 15th appearance with the orchestra, delivered an engaging performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, followed by a memorable Beethoven encore. And the evening opened with J.S. Bach’s lovely chorale prelude “Sleepers Wake,” as orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski.
Goossens, a member of a British musical dynasty, was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony from 1931 to 1946, and he also directed the Cincinnati May Festival. (His book, “Cincinnati Interludes,” offers noteworthy insights into Music Hall’s acoustics.) Although he was a well-regarded composer, Goossens is more remembered today for his World War II fanfare commissioning project with the CSO, which resulted in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
His Second Symphony, which he composed in Maine, Seattle, New York and Cincinnati from 1943-44, was also influenced by the war. And just as composers such as Shostakovich, Carl Nielsen and Benjamin Britten documented wartime in their music, Goossens colored his four movements with military drumming, trumpet calls, sardonic marches and the personal sadness of war.
It was that sadness, or nostalgia for home, that Davis pointed out in his “play-by-play” description for the audience, and which was beautifully illustrated in the slow movement. Here the composer assigned an English folk tune, “The Turtle Dove,” to muted trumpet, played exquisitely by principal trumpet-designate Robert Sullivan. The atmospheric movement included flourishes for piccolo (Joan Voorhees) that were inspired, Davis said, by a finch Goossens had heard in Connecticut.
Davis, who is currently principal conductor and music director of the Chicago Lyric Opera and chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony, gave it a committed and detailed reading. His tempos were well-chosen, bringing clarity to Goossens’ sometimes dense writing.
The first movement, with its brooding chromaticism and angular themes, was tempered by lyrical moments that were finely shaped. One brass-filled climax, for instance, dissolved seamlessly into an intimate duo for cello and alto flute.
The conductor kept textures light in the scherzo movement, which featured sardonic themes in brass and winds and clipped pizzicatos in the strings. Only in the finale, which was rich with dramatic tension, did momentum sag in the middle. Still, it was remarkable to hear it.
The musicians, and the many orchestral soloists, played with fervor and precision, and listeners approved with extended ovations. With so few recordings available, perhaps the CSO should consider making one.
In the first half, Ohlsson’s performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C Minor was magical. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a delicate, crystal-clear touch in this work. Yet he also conveyed the mystery and atmosphere of the C-minor key, which evokes Mozart’s concerto in the same key (K. 491). The first-movement cadenza, a lengthy solo that is almost a movement itself, was lyrical, unrushed and deeply felt. It was the first time its disparate runs, trills and flights of fancy have made sense to me.
The slow movement, with its hymn- like opening, was profoundly moving. The finale sparkled. Davis’ collaboration was genial and the two kept a good balance in Music Hall’s “new” acoustic.
For an encore, Ohlsson treated with a ravishing performance of the Adagio from Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathetique.”
The opening Bach-Stokowski “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Wake up, calls the voice), also illustrated a Cincinnati connection, as Stokowski was music director 1909-12, before going to Philadelphia. This was a first CSO performance, and featured a wonderful solo for bassoon (William Winstead). With the new seating arrangement, there seemed to be some ensemble problems between the strings. But Davis brought the chorale to a big, organ-like climax, which resounded in the hall.
At the concert’s opening, CSO president Jonathan Martin announced a newly-endowed chair. Ashley and Barbara Ford have endowed the principal tuba chair, currently held by Christopher Olka.
The concert was repeated Sunday afternoon in Music Hall. Information: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org.