Anyone who thinks that a top-notch concert experience in the USA can be found only with the leading orchestras misses out on the quality music-making being offered up by America’s regional orchestras. The Columbus Symphony Orchestra is a case in point. It isn’t as famous as the orchestras in Cleveland or Cincinnati, yet it’s the hometown band for what is, by far, the largest city in the state of Ohio. Certainly, this evening’s performance of music by Mozart, Brahms and Boulanger under the direction of guest conductor JoAnn Falletta allowed the ability to showcase this ensemble's laudable qualities.

JoAnn Falletta © Cheryl Gorski
JoAnn Falletta
© Cheryl Gorski

Opening the program were two pieces commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Lili Boulanger. An extraordinary musical talent (including being the first female winner of the Prix de Rome prize for composition), this composer’s tragically short life yielded a number of significant works. Dating from Boulanger’s final year, D’un soir triste and D’un matin de printemps share similar themes (although presented very differently). Falletta and the Columbus musicians conjured up pensive atmospherics in the Soir triste, with Boulanger’s sometimes-turgid orchestration coming across as more clear than one often hears in this music. It was a memorable performance of this highly chromatic score.

Falletta chose to present the two Boulanger works without interruption, and they pair beautifully. Matin de printemps is of a contrasting character (bright and airy). In Falletta’s deft treatment, woodwind passages were pure gossamer, while orchestral flourishes offered additional splashes of color. Importantly, Boulanger’s delicate balances were maintained throughout. If tonight’s performance left us with one additional observation, it’s that Boulanger capped her orchestral legacy in a life-affirming manner with D’un matin de printemps.

The young American violin soloist Alexi Kenney joined the orchestra to present Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G Major, K. 216. Probably Mozart’s most famous violin concerto, it’s been a staple in the concert hall forever – and for good reason, considering its uniformly good spirits and exuberant solo violin part. In the opening Allegro, the orchestra and soloist traded the effervescent melodic lines back and forth, leading to an arresting cadenza (it was Christian Tetzlaff’s with some embellishments by Kenney). If anything, the second movement Adagio was even more impressive; the facile opening was beautiful in its delicacy of transition, alternating in major and minor key, during which Kenney was able to exploit the full singing qualities of his instrument. The short cadenza in this movement was Kenney’s own – and well in keeping with the style and atmospherics of the rest of the concerto.

The final Rondo was also a joy to hear. Particularly impressive was the sprightly-yet graceful treatment of the main theme that becomes a kind of refrain throughout the movement. Kenney’s solo work continued in an atmosphere of good spirits, with Mozart’s splashy violin passages being tossed off with aplomb. It’s when hearing music like this that it’s easy to understand why so many people consider Mozart to be perfection in music. Indeed, what we were treated to this evening was very close to perfection as well.

Following the concerto, Kenney treated the appreciative audience to an encore. It isn’t often that a piece by Bach is more virtuosic than a concerto, but in this case it was the Prelude from the Partita no. 3 in E Major, where Kenney’s impressive technical agility was on display.

Following the intermission, Falletta and the Columbus players presented another concert hall staple: Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor. Theirs was a robust interpretation in the grandest Austro-German tradition – one that puts the lie to critic Eduard Hanslick’s pronouncement that this symphony is “too earnest and complex”. In the first movement, Falletta maintained forward propulsion during the extended introduction while ensuring that Brahms’ more discursive moments in the development section lost none of their underlying drama and pacing. The movement’s coda and resolution in the major key was a very special moment.

The second and third movements in this symphony are lighter in tone. I was quite taken with concertmaster Joanna Frankel’s extended violin solo as well as the oboe passages in the Andante sostenuto movement, while the third movement breathed with wonderfully open spirits – with a particularly gorgeous solo clarinet, too. As for the final movement, it’s monumental. The horn calls and the grand melody that followed were awe-inspiring. Falletta and the orchestra also made sure to deliver plenty of the drama that is called for in the middle of the movement, before bringing the symphony home in a glorious, life-affirming blaze of sound. One word sums it up: thrilling.

A final treat was a brilliantly played Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 1. It’s too bad audiences aren’t treated to more orchestral encores these days – they’re like icing on the cake.