CONCERT REVIEW: CSO kind of blue, jazzes up the joint

We knew the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra wasn't just a big band, but a Big Band?

In its Pops incarnation, yes, and Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel has made the CSO swing often, but it was music director Paavo Jarvi's turn Friday night at Music Hall.

He did it complete with blue lighting and amplification - again nothing the Pops has not done, but on a CSO subscription concert the twain rarely meet.

Billed "Jarvi 'n Jazz," the concert was heavily infused with the latter, some by way of Weimar-era Germany (Kurt Weill), the rest by native sons George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. The hall was packed, a signal to the CSO to "unbend" once in a while.

Guest artist in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was pianist Wayne Marshall. CSO principal clarinetist Richard Hawley did the honors on the famous opening "smear" and was soloist in his own right in Bernstein's brilliant, bebop-influenced "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs."

"Rhapsody in Blue" was heard in the familiar symphonic arrangement by Ferde Grofe, "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" in its original jazz version. Also on the program were Weill's Suite from "The Threepenny Opera" and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story."

Sitting in with the CSO players in the Weill were accordionist Jack Frost and saxophonists Rick vanMatre and James Bunte. It was music to slice off the years, recalling early jazzmen like Bix Beiderbecke with its steady, foursquare beat and banjo, tuba coloration (kudos to CSO violinist Paul Patterson who played banjo and guitar).

The 18-piece "theater orchestra" performed seven excerpts from Weill's legendary work, including "Mack the Knife," "Ballad of the Easy Life" (dripping satire with its tinkling piano and drum rim shots) and a lovely, lilting "Polly's Song." Trumpeter Doug Lindsay was a standout in "Cannon Song," and Jarvi milked all the drama from the anarchic, mock-solemn Finale.

Jarvi and a 15-member Big Band (five saxes, five trumpets, three trombones) tossed hot licks into the hall in Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." Jarvi stepped aside near the end and let Hawley, Marshall and the players rip, the notated "Riffs" aping true improvisation. It prompted a spontaneous ovation as well as an encore, Gershwin's witty, urbane "Walking the Dog" in which Hawley showed once again that he owns far more than classical chops.

The strings came on for the second half, adding their lush sound to Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances," a blend of rumble and romance, with finger snaps, police whistle and an aching "Somewhere." Jarvi handled the work's difficult transitions smoothly, coursing static-free from the charming, pizzicato-laced "Maria" to the crackling electricity of "Cool."

It was Marshall's moment in Gershwin's "Rhapsody" and he made the most of it, though I prefer and warmer, more defined interpretation. He played with plenty of dash and virtuosity, but tempos were pushed, and it had a hard-edged quality. Balances were sometimes off, too, particularly at the end where Marshall was nearly covered by the brass.

Mary Ellyn HuttonCincinnati Post