A hearty tip of the hat to Michael Francis and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for presenting an utterly fascinating program comprised of four beguiling works, each from a different part of the 20th century and from a composer representing a different nationality and distinctive musical voice. Perhaps only one is regularly performed, and diverse as the body of work was, the evening proved to be a richly rewarding musical journey – further enhanced by Francis’ historically-informed commentary.

Michael Francis
© Charlie Balcom

Andrzej Panufnik’s Third Symphony, the Sinfonia Sacra, served as the arresting opener. Dating from 1963, it was written to mark the millennial of the composer’s native Poland. The opening movement is divided into three Visions, beginning with a bright fanfare from four trumpets dispersed throughout the orchestra. A glacial calm in the strings followed, while the last of the triptych was dominated by forceful percussion. The closing Hymn movement saw a stirring and enchanting presentation of the Polish hymn Bogurodzica, building to an astringent climax wherein the trumpets and percussion from the Visions reemerged.

Like Panufnik, Rachmaninov found himself living far away from his home country in response to political turmoil. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini took us back to 1934, a product of the composer’s final burst of creative energy. A crisp announcement of Paganini’s venerable theme was punctuated by powerful interjections from pianist Behzod Abduraimov. Following the dramatic opening material, he offered sprightly pianism in this sparkling treatment of the source material, though the injection of the Dies irae led us towards darker, more solemn territory.

Behzod Abduraimov and the Cincinnati Symphony
© Charlie Balcom

Abduraimov impressed in his bold projection, reverberating through Music Hall, and his unflagging vigor. He showed his lyrical gift in the evergreen 18th variation, answered in due course by thundering double octaves and ultimately, the work’s flippant anticlimax of a conclusion. For a well-deserved encore, Abduraimov turned to another composer’s treatment of Paganini in Liszt’s La campanella for an absolutely dazzling close to the first half.

Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question was the earliest work on the program (1906 – though not first performed until 1946), but in some ways, the most forward-thinking. It even required a second conductor in CSO assistant Samuel Lee who guided the strings while Francis conducted the flutes and offstage trumpet. The strings resounded pure and celestial, the distant trumpet posed the titular question, and the flutes discussed and debated with increasing discord. Much was said in its mere eight-minute duration, a philosophical conversation in music that captivated. 

The Cincinnati Symphony woodwinds
© Charlie Balcom

Composed 1944-47 – during and in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 – Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony is very much a product of those dark times. It was also a programming choice that served as timely acknowledgement of the composer’s 150th anniversary, just weeks prior to the concert. The opening Allegro was uncompromising and cataclysmic, with a secondary theme amounting to a nervous procession. Late in the movement, a gentle harp introduced a gracious and quintessentially English theme, more akin to something from Elgar – a lament for the loss of an earlier era.

The strident Moderato was no less bleak, with an uneasy pulsating motif growing to pounding percussion, only for matters to be distilled to a forlorn English horn solo. Reminiscent of Shostakovich, the Scherzo was militant and sardonic, and strikingly included an extended passage for tenor saxophone.  Disembodied, the haunting Epilogue hung on only by a thread before completely dissipating, closing in spellbinding silence.

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