No fly-over, mid-western backwater, Cincinnati has a long and distinguished musical tradition, boasting the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, the Cincinnati May Festival, one of the nation's top music conservatories: the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, all in addition to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which opened its 2015-2016 with a tremendous concert this morning.

Yefim Bronfman © Dario Acosta
Yefim Bronfman
© Dario Acosta

Beethoven's Fidelio Overture, one of four openers the Bonn master wrote for his one and only opera, is a work that begins briskly and then gives the solo horn and strings from the very onset of its precious seven-minutes as much heavy-lifting as any player could possibly want to handle. The CSO gave it a fierce performance.

Béla Bartók himself performed his First Piano Concerto with the CSO in 1928. As legend has it, a former member of the piano faculty at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music already was in a long-term affaire du coeur with the composer when he visited. One could say that Cincinnati has had some deep connections to the Hungarian composer and his oeuvre for sometime. Bartók’s finger-breaking Second Piano Concerto was the centerpiece of the concert this morning.

The composition of the Second was offered up by the Hungarian composer as a way of ramping up the technical challenges that the fierce and all-but-unplayable First Piano Concerto of his presents. This concerto is a pianistic obstacle course not fit for the faint-hearted but for titans of the keyboard. Bartók's fellow Hungarian Geza Anda, became the most notable interpeter of all three piano concertos; that crown should now be worn by the Russian-born, Israeli-American Yefim Bronfman.

Bartók's Second is a largely polytonal work that owes a great deal to Stravinsky, the Russian émigré who cast such a large shadow on 20th century composers. What is uniquely Bartók in this work, as it is in several other of his piano works, is the unabashed use of Hungarian folk melodies, elevated to concert-hall status, yet never losing their simple melodic purity.

Yefim Bronfman came, played, and conquered Bartók’s technically-daunting musical maze, one that defies soloist and orchestra to merely stay together, let alone make music. Bronfman made it unscathed through the opening and the final Allegros, taking the unreasonable metronome markings (half-note=84 for the finale) as a matter of course. He then elicited singing tone out of the central movement's slow-fast-slow Bartókian arch. In the final Allegro, he and the orchestra played at full-throttle in a performance brimming with electricity, yet never overreaching, never losing dignity and elegance.

The second half was given to Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a sprawling symphonic poem described by its composer as “various episodes in the life of an artist…” In this work, five separate sections depict several hallucinatory stages of a drug-induced sleep: daydreams and passionate love-making, a ball, a scene in the fields, a march to the scaffold, and a witches Sabbath. It is as fanciful, as Romantic and as rhythmically tricky a work as it comes, and the Cincinnati musicians, who keep getting better and better with each passing season, gave it a flawless performance: the string sound warm, the brass brilliant, the woodwinds repeatedly achieving virtuosity.

Music director Louis Langrée, a Frenchman and a Mozartian (he's Music Director of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival) is also a connoisseur of the entire Gallic canon, having programmed a good number of French compositions during his first two seasons in the Queen City. He knows Berlioz and he knows how to piece together all those disconnected flashes of melody into a cohesive whole.

Langrée has nurtured this orchestra through a couple of seasons that one could liken to an extended courtship. The musical union has now been consummated and one hopes for a long and happy life for all parties in this artistic marriage made in heaven.