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The other star was French pianist Hélène Grimaud, whose appearance for the centerpiece of the evening — Ravel’s rock-solid Piano Concerto in G in G — gave an astonishing demonstration of her skill. and his poetic sensibility. His most recent recording, “The Messenger” (with Camerata Salzburg), is a pair of pieces by Mozart and contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov that offers a similar demonstration of Grimaud’s sensibility not only as a performer, but also as a listener.
Thursday’s program closed Ravel’s concerto with “Helix”, a 2005 piece precisely titled by Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Sergei Prokofiev’s tribute to “the free and happy man”. , his 1944 Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. (In addition to a rehearsal of this program at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, Cox will lead the ONS in the Prokofiev in the Anthem on Friday night.)
In 2008, Salonen made the mistake of saying something quotable: “My focus shifted from an ideological principle to a pleasure principle,” he told the LA Times in reference to his 1997 article ” THE Variations”. Since then, the citation has followed him like a kite.
Salonen, who in 2020 became the 12th music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, certainly composes works that are imbued with bittersweet pleasures. Am I going to mention Sibelius? Of course I am. Salonen has an admittedly Sibelian(?) sense of how to create time in his music – a haze of barely there strings, gusts of wind, gracefully diffused light. But I wouldn’t say “Helix” is concerned with fun – its rewards come from its precise precariousness. This is not a job for those who are afraid of heights.
Cox turned on “Helix” like a switch and threw his arms up in his continued ascent. As it stayed true to its name, rising in a tight coil like the funnel of a tornado, a cloud of chromatic dust rising in its wake, I remember reaching into my bag for my inhaler. A piccolo and a cello traced a line like a bead of sweat. The pulse of the music regularly skipped beats. We weren’t halfway through its 10 minutes before being overwhelmed by the feeling I get on the Dupont Circle escalators: reverse momentum that sucks you forward as you stand still.
Her dizzying ascent soared to a peak of chimes and came to a screeching halt in Cox’s sure hand.
The principles of pleasure remaining after the Salonen cyclone were happily taken up by Grimaud who, once installed at the Steinway which they unrolled, launched into the unveiling of Ravel’s deliberately entertaining concerto. Completed in 1931 — a process both interrupted and influenced by Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” for Paul Wittgenstein — G major is a feat on many fronts.
It demands an almost impossible facility from its soloist, who must navigate all sorts of piano tricks and textural effects (like the thin web of high notes at its start), but also extreme delicacy and patience ( his adagio assai is anchored by a solo long and light as a cirrus).
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And of his conductor, he demands not only the mastery of Ravel’s skilful orchestration, which often seems to rise from the body of the piano, but also the skilful interweaving of the composer’s vernaculars. Cox did a fabulous job making Ravel’s incorporation of jazz the innovation that it was. Its iconic five-note figure foreshadows decades of American experimentation with our own music – it doesn’t just sound like “An American in Paris”, it sounds American, in Paris. (When George Gershwin asked Ravel, as usual, for composition lessons, Ravel made the mistake of saying something quotable: “Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a Gershwin? first class ?”)
Cox coaxed a wonderful stereo glow from the strings throughout, and Grimaud moved freely between harsh accents and exquisite levity. Its finesse through the expansive solo that opens the slow second movement supported its melodic body while reveling in what seemed like endless space. (There’s more than a little Satie at work here, too.)
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A magnificent work of flute and oboe enshrined the movement. And while Cox and Grimaud were in sync for most of the move, their dynamics diverged towards the end of the adagio – the two landing at slightly different angles. They seemed to fix things for the most part in the presto: Grimaud racing under sparkling arcs of clarinet and between busy bassoons and plunging brass, and Cox steering a visibly tighter ship to the abrupt end of the finale.
The highlight of Cox’s night was his rapprochement. Premiered in Moscow by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1945, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most thematically rich symphonies of the last century. His melodies bear the same particular forms as those which give his ballets such seductive lines, worked here in an architecture which, like the Salonen, seems constantly to rise and fall at the same time.
So the triumphant innards of this symphony, particularly in its first movement, feel assailed by a cramp of anguish, which makes its relentless search for higher ground all the more impactful. Cox brought this out with a deft balance of darkened harmonies through the brass (no mean feat in this room!), letting them swirl and crash like choppy waters against a cliff wall.
The second movement, a galloping scherzo in three beats, brimmed with character and benefited greatly from Cox’s driving approach. Its bustle of blowing trumpets and pizzicato strings was cut by haunting oboe interjections. Echoing the Salonen, the movement accelerated and tightened in a racing reverie that burst like fireworks.
It was in the third and fourth movements that Cox and the NSO found a powerful symbiosis. Piccolos, flutes and languid strings were threaded through the third with the tension of the suspension bridge. Cox created a vast landscape, rich in color and depth – a particular homage to Stephen Dumaine, whose stable tuba was the glue.
The fourth, with its tenderly rendered restatement of the opening themes by a chorus of cellos, opened with a scintillating finale. Cox took it to a crest with hopeful strings, leaping piccolos and upbeat explosions from the back of the orchestra. For Prokofiev it was the sound of the human mind, but in Cox’s hands it felt like his own story: taking what he already had and imagining himself anew.
Roderick Cox leads the ONS in Prokofiev’s Fifth at the anthem April 8; “Hélène Grimaud plays Ravel” in rebroadcast on April 9 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.