Bearing the moniker Impressions of Folk, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s program was true to its name in turning towards repertoire inspired by various folk traditions, with a Shostakovich piano concerto serving as an ebullient centerpiece. Music director Louis Langrée led this colorful evening, presented live a few weeks prior to its digital premiere to a modest audience sprinkled throughout the cavernous Music Hall – a reported 300 patrons were in attendance, the first time the CSO has performed for a live audience since March of last year.

George Walker holds a significant place in music history in being the first African American composer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and moreover, opening the program with a work of his served as a timely acknowledgment of Black History Month. Dating from 1990, the Folksongs for Orchestra is conceived in four brief movements, each based on a spiritual wordlessly interpreted by the orchestra. Going to lay down my sword and shield was of stately lyricism, quintessentially American in its earthy harmonies. And they crucified my Lord contrasted in its dissonant percussiveness wherein meaning was conveyed through orchestral color. The subsequent My Lord, what a morning calmed matters, a plaintive response to the preceding, while the concluding O, Peter, go ring dem bells was exultant and featured a notable tuba passage from Christopher Olka.

Shostakovich wrote his Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major for his son Maxim, whom the program notes indicated conducted the CSO on two occasions in the 1980s, in both cases guiding the orchestra in his father’s music. Kirill Gerstein served as a first-rate soloist in the present performance. The bright and sprightly kinetic energy of the opening movement saw a sardonic wit at nearly every corner, with Gerstein delivering the solo part with just the right panache and an idiomatic fluency for the repertoire. The central Andante is Shostakovich at his most touchingly lyrical, a nocturne-like meditation, only to be countered by the finale’s whirlwind of manic exuberance.

A further folk exploration was to be had in the concluding selection, Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. Very much in the vein of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, the work is an amalgamation of Hungarian folk traditions, interpolated into an urbane, cosmopolitan conception. Matters opened in a measured, brooding passion before ramping up in velocity. The principal winds were in fine form with clarinetist Christopher Pell the standout in the extended virtuosic cadenza-like passages. Scintillating orchestrations captured one’s attention to this irresistibly evocative music. A moment of stillness – once again bringing the principal winds in the spotlight – punctuated before the work closed in a final blaze of fire.


This performance was reviewed from the CSO video stream

***11