Mälkki and Josefowicz champion Sibelius, Knussen with The Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Leila Josefowicz, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 6, 2020

Sibelius: En saga, Op. 9
Knussen: Violin Concerto, Op. 30
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39

Ever the dynamic podium presence, Susanna Mälkki brought to The Cleveland Orchestra a pair of imposing yet less-trodden Sibelius scores, bookending a seminal 21st-centruy concerto from the late Oliver Knussen. Sibelius’ early tone poem En saga is the work of a confident young composer self-assuredly finding his voice, not heard at Severance Hall since a 1965 performance under George Szell. Undulating strings gave this single-movement essay an epic sense of scale, countered by thornier winds with the composer masterfully spinning a tale worthy its saga designation. A particularly memorable theme was articulated through the burnished, musky warmth of the violas and cellos, while a solo from clarinetist Daniel McKelway pointed towards a somber end: a mere whisper in the strings, fading away with remarkable control at the ppp dynamic level.

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Susanna Mälkki, photo credit Jiyang Chen

Knussen is a man who had a wonderfully fruitful relationship with TCO up to his untimely passing in 2018, both as composer and conductor. His 2002 violin concerto received its second Cleveland hearing, this time with champion of the contemporary violin repertoire Leila Josefowicz. Orchestral bells opened the work in striking fashion, with rapid runs high in the violin’s stratosphere. Despite the modernist dissonances, Josefowicz delivered with a luminous clarity. In many regards, this is a Romantic work at heart, a persuasion most pronounced in the resonant lyricism of the central Aria. The closing Gigue thrilled in its intricate web of rhythmic intricacies, negotiated with aplomb and finesse by all.

While the influences of the late Romantic milieu abound in Sibelius’ First Symphony, its opening of a solo clarinet – gorgeously played by Afendi Yusuf – over a rumbling timpani is pure Sibelius, unmistakably the composer’s own rarefied language, even in this inaugural symphonic effort. The strings entered in their celestial radiance for the movement proper with the music lush and rewarding. A dose of Nordic chill was introduced in the development, and perhaps it was Mälkki’s shared heritage with the composer that gave her such innate Sibelian fluency in this thoroughly convincing performance.

The endless melody of the Andante could easily be mistaken for a Tchaikovsky slow movement: he we saw not the forward-thinking Sibelius we would later come to know, but one firmly – and comfortably – rooted in the 19th-century. The scherzo was in turn a nod to Bruckner, and the orchestra remained in tight cohesion even at vigorous speed. A slow, measured introduction to the finale was seeped in melancholy and tragedy, yet in due course gave way to a boisterous, unrelenting affair, occasionally contrasted by a rich melody that resided deep in the strings. The brash coda proceeded with confident swagger, only to turn inward at the last moment to close in unexpected anticlimax.

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Leila Josefowicz with Oliver Knussen in 2015, photo credit Rikimaru Hotta

Rare Prokofiev highlights Welser-Möst’s offbeat Cleveland Orchestra program

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 30, 2020

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111
Bridge: The Sea, H100
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Following their annual residency in Miami, The Cleveland Orchestra is back home for a hearty stretch of concerts leading up to another tour this spring that will take them to Europe and the Middle East. Franz Welser-Möst, continuing his often revelatory exploration of Prokofiev, opened the program with the composer’s seldom heard Sixth Symphony. If the Fifth Symphony celebrates the glories and triumphs of World War II, the Sixth takes a much darker approach in its bracing depiction of the war’s tragedies and losses. As Welser-Möst noted in his spoken introduction, here we have the usually complacent Prokofiev living on the “knife’s edge” of what was acceptable artistically to the Soviet authorities – with its ambiguities and underlying tragedy, it draws comparison to the subversive works of Shostakovich.

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Title page of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony

The opening Allegro moderato was thorny and unforgiving, foregoing the familiar cohesion of sonata form for a structure underpinned by garish thematic transitions, through which Welser-Möst guided the orchestra with exacting precision. Stark textures were drawn from the low brass and rather busy piano, and the metallic climaxes depicted in no uncertain terms the true trauma of war. The central Largo served as the emotional crux, with arching strings introducing a pained lyricism. A percussive section, however, ensured this was far from a purely meditative affair, and the celesta added another striking timbre. The motoric finale, patently Prokofiev, delivered rapid fire repeated notes with a Haydnesque wit. An interjection of sparse and forlorn material gave pause before the conclusion – cacophonous, bombastic, and in apparent triumph, albeit only skin-deep.

An even rarer quantity followed after intermission in Frank Bridge’s orchestral suite The Sea. The Cleveland Orchestra gave the US premiere of the work under first music director Nikolai Sokoloff in 1923, and remarkably, hasn’t touched it since. Its four movements depict the titular entity in various guises, and would be a clear inspiration for the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten, Bridge’s one and only composition student. Additionally, Bridge spent much time on the coast at Eastbourne, where Debussy too gleaned inspiration for another indelible musical sea portrait, La mer.

“Seascape” opened in lavish orchestration with a flowing melody in clear evocation of the sea – music of great beauty and appeal. The scherzo-like frothiness of “Sea Foam” depicted the ever-changing surface, while “Moonlight” unfolded as a nocturne with a delicate flute melody in counterpoint with the harp. Thundering timpani and dissonant brass conjured the closing “Storm”, but the sun shone through for a resplendent end – let us hope it is not nearly another century before we hear the work again!

Dukas’ one-hit wonder The Sorcerer’s Apprentice closed the evening in exciting fashion. Quiet mystery opened, setting the stage for the indestructible march theme, giving the bassoon and contrabassoon a rare moment in the spotlight. The orchestra amassed to vigor in bringing Goethe’s fantastical poem to life in musical terms, only to dissipate in a closing gesture as blistering as it was sudden.

Kronos Quartet celebrates contemporary music at Carnegie Hall

Kronos Quartet
Zankel Hall
Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
January 25, 2020

Gordon: Clouded Yellow
Glass: Quartet Satz
Mazzoli: Enthusiasm Strategies
Mochizuki: Boids
Riley: “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour” and “One Earth, One People, One Love” from Sun Rings
Dessner: Le Bois
Reich: Different Trains

Encore:
Man: “Silk and Bamboo” from Two Chinese Paintings

The Kronos Quartet’s sold out Saturday night performance at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was an enthusiastic celebration of music by living, thriving composers, three of whom were present in the audience: Michael Gordon, Missy Mazzoli, and Philip Glass. About half the selections performed were products of Kronos’ ambitious and ingenious initiative Fifty for the Future, wherein 50 new works – 25 by men, 25 by women – are being commissioned over a five year period, with the score along with a recording by Kronos available for free online. A remarkable way to disseminate new repertoire for the venerable string quartet, and one had that project to thank for the works heard on Saturday by Glass, Mazzoli, Mochizuki, and Dessner.

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Kronos Quartet (not pictured, cellist Paul Wiancko), photo credit Jay Blakesberg

The quartet performed against a backdrop of lighting effects, adding a visual dimension to the already rich aural soundscape. Michael Gordon’s Clouded Yellow opened the evening, evoking its namesake species of butterfly with a striking harmonic palette, mutating over a cello ostinato – one of many fine contributions from cellist Paul Wiancko, substituting for Sunny Yang while she is on maternity leave. A more rhythmically driven section offered a propulsive drive, with matters eventually dissipating to mesmerizing effect. Glass’ Quartet Satz showed the composer at his most lyrical, glacially paced but not without quintessentially Glassian modulations. The New York premiere of Mazzoli’s Enthusiasm Strategies followed, an expression of joy marked by ethereal textures in the strings’ upper registers. Misato Mochizuki’s Boids refers to the flocking behavior of fish, as such, the music was filled with sudden, sharp turns, depicting the entropy found in nature.

A pair of movements from Terry Riley’s extensive suite Sun Rings rounded off the first half. With the NASA Art Program one of the work’s commissioners, Riley drew upon a literal music of the spheres, weaving in recordings of solar winds and other phenomenon: in “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour”, acoustic textures danced with cosmic electronica. In his informative commentary between selections, first violinist David Harrington noted that the concluding “One Earth, One People, One Love” has become something of an anthem for Kronos. 9/11 fell during the genesis of Sun Rings, forcing the work to take a different direction in the wake of new reality. Riley employed a recording of Alice Walker speaking the eponymous mantra, and projections of the Earth from space put the events on the surface in the context of a vast cosmos. An extended passage for solo cello was particularly moving.

Two larger works filled the second half, beginning with the world premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Le Bois. Drawing on a work by Pérotin and inspired by the modern day destruction by fire of the Notre Dame Cathedral, it began with a monastic drone, which upon taking a myriad of guises, pointed towards a contemplative ending. While I look forward to hearing more from Dessner, this work ultimately didn’t make the strongest impression. Closing the printed program was Reich’s iconic Different Trains, written expressly for Kronos in 1988. Harrington noted this marked turning point for them in which the quartet effectively became a quintet given the newfound need for a full-time sound engineer. Vigorous material opened, brimming with American idealism and optimism as encapsulated by the transcontinental railroad, only for matters to be starkly contrasted by depiction of the trains on the other side of the Atlantic that contemporaneously transported victims to the concentration camps. A definitive performance of this masterpiece.

By way of an encore, the quartet offered Wu Man’s “Silk and Bamboo”, another product of Fifty for the Future. The piece included a substantial percussion part on Chinese gong and woodblocks, expertly handled by violist Hank Dutt. A topical choice given the coincidence of the Lunar New Year, and a wonderfully festive end to the evening.

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Zankel Hall before the Kronos Quartet’s performance

Dudamel and NY Phil strong partners in Mahler and Schubert

New York Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano
Andrew Staples, tenor
David Geffen Hall
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
January 23, 2020

Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D417, Tragic
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Not having had a New York Philharmonic appearance since 2009, Gustavo Dudamel made an eagerly anticipated return in a two week stint, the second of which coupled an early symphony by Schubert with a late work of Mahler. While Schubert’s Fourth Symphony may seem like a trifle in the wake of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, it too is a canvas of deep poignancy, often befitting of its sobriquet Tragic ­– not in the least during the opening of gripping Beethovenian pathos.

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Gustavo Dudamel and Andres Staples in Das Lied von der Erde, photo credit Chris Lee

Dudamel allowed for the introduction to be spacious and breathable, and the movement proper was of pointed dynamic contrasts. He took matters at a noticeably slow tempo in spite of the Allegro vivace indication – while perhaps this served to amass gravitas, to my mind it felt unnecessarily plodding as a dirge. The orchestra on stage was quite large for Schubert, but clarity was maintained with the delicate inner voices never lost in the masses.

The Andante came as a more gentle foil, this gem of a slow movement boasting a lieder-like intimacy and a particularly fine oboe solo. What followed was a propellant Menuetto, with its trio a rather more halcyon affair. The Allegro finale returned to the pathos of the opening, with Dudamel saving the brisker firepower for the end. Lyrical interjections from the winds offered some respite, but matters were generally tightly wound and with sharp articulations by the strings, rounded off by a driving trio of chords.

Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and CEO, took to the stage to announce that Simon O’Neill, the previously scheduled tenor, was indisposed and would be replaced by Andrew Staples. Fresh off playing the role of Andres at the Met’s well-regarded run of Wozzeck, Staples hardly sounded as a mere stand-in, handily overcoming Mahler’s substantial technical demands. In its large-scale conception, rallying two singers and massive orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde is perhaps the non plus ultra of the song cycle, a venerable form with modest beginnings in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte – by happy coincidence, heard the previous night at 92Y.

The opening “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” was of brassy energy and of a certain epic quality despite being a rather mundane drinking song. Staples had no issue projecting over the surging passions of the orchestra, and each intonation of “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!” was increasingly pained. The interludes for orchestra alone were consistently highlights, often appropriating the pentatonic scale to invoke a certain orientalism. “Der Einsame im Herbst” turned inwards to the forlorn and pensive, beautifully captured by the frosty tone of masterful Mahlerian Michelle DeYoung.

“Von der Jugend”, the most patently pentatonic, was a burst of youthful nonchalance, a marked departure from the weight of the bulk of the work. Sparkling orchestrations gave an appealing sheen to “Von der Schönheit”, and a more agitated section arrived on cue with the text’s depiction of lads arriving on horses; a genial orchestral postlude closed. Staples’ final contribution came in “Der Trunkene im Frühling” – another drinking song – given haughtily, but portrayal of the twittering birds in the violins added a layer of fragility.

The closing “Der Abschied”, clocking in at the length of the previous five songs combined, was nothing short of extraordinary. Its otherworldly beginnings and striking timbres – of harps, celesta, and sinuous oboe – brought to mind Stefan George’s line “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten”, written virtually contemporaneously with Das Lied von der Erde. DeYoung had a full, resounding tone, but in equal measure delicate and fragile, as if hanging on to these last embers of earthly life. Dudamel offered a keen sense of direction for the long-form trajectory, and the orchestral transition between the two poems that comprise this final movement was deeply moving. After the arduous journey, the musings landed on the repeated incantation of “ewig, ewig”, a heavenly drifting away, to which the audience responded with perhaps the greatest praise of all: a full minute of reverential silence.

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Gustavo Dudamel and Michelle DeYoung in Das Lied von der Erde, photo credit Chris Lee

Roderick Williams vividly brings Die schöne Magelone to life at 92Y

Roderick Williams, baritone
Julius Drake, piano
Adam Gopnik, narrator
Cristina Garcia Martin, animations

Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall
92nd Street Y
New York, NY
January 22, 2020

Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98
Brahms: Romanzen aus L. Tieck’s Die schöne Magelone, Op. 33

If Beethoven didn’t invent the song cycle, surely he was the first great composer to embrace such a structure with his modest yet nonetheless epochal An die ferne Geliebte. In this 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth year, all the installments of 92Y’s vocal series include the aforementioned in concert with an entry from the immense body of work it spawned: Roderick Williams and Julius Drake’s Wednesday evening recital paired it with Brahms’ Die schöne Magelone. Before diving in to the Beethoven archetype, the affable Williams addressed the audience with some musings about what constitutes a song cycle, humorously noting that one such distinction is the point at which one applauds.

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Roderick Williams, photo credit Groves Artists

The six songs that comprise An die ferne Geliebte barely stretch a quarter hour, but they say much in little – tautly constructed, and with ingenious transitions in the piano to connect each song to its successor in a continuous arc. Williams’ razor-sharp German diction served to convey the wistfulness in the opening Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend, as did the longing appoggiaturas from the keyboard. A texture of roiling triplets marked Leichte Segler in den Höhen, delivered with a lightness of touch though matters grew darker along with the clouds depicted. The closing Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder counted as a further highlight in its sonorous resound in conveyance of deep Sehnsucht, with a recurrence of the material from the first song bringing things to a satisfyingly cyclical close.

The rather more extensive Magelone songs – which the program notes rightfully called a “neglected masterpiece” – were given an ambitious multimedia treatment. Brahms asked for portions of Tieck’s prose (published in the late 18th century, drawing on a legend that dates from medieval France) to be read between songs – in many regards, a necessity given the cumbersome narrative and that not all songs are from the protagonist’s point of view. Writer and essayist Adam Gopnik served as a fine narrator, delivering Tieck’s florid text in an English translation by Williams. Additionally, during the narrations, animations by Cristina Garcia Martin were projected, illustrating the tale on a colorful and stylish canvas, and at their best, obviating the need for the audience to meticulously follow along with texts and translations.

The opening Keinen hat es noch gereut was a courtly affair of rollicking energy, while the succeeding Traun! Bogen und Pfeil showed the performers at their most defiant, with Drake offering some extrovert playing, handily surmounting Brahms’ thorny piano writing. Wie soll ich die Freude was a touchingly lyrical expression of bliss and joy – this fairy tale with an eventual happy ending so much the opposite of the tragic depths favored in the Romantic era song cycles – and served as a logical break before the intermission. Wir müssen uns trennen offered delicate imitation of the lute, and here was a clear case where the narration and animation helped frame the song in context – otherwise one might well have been left wondering why at this point the protagonist was singing a heartfelt goodbye to a lute.

By the same token, given the improbability of this fairy tale narrative, I couldn’t help but wonder if these extramusical interjections were altogether necessary – perhaps it is more fruitful to eschew any distractions from a convoluted plot and instead allow the audience to zero in on the exquisitely crafted music in of itself. Wie schnell verschwindet was the first real instance of melancholy, and quite movingly so, but countered in due course by the coquettishness of Sulima. Williams and Drake gave the penultimate Wie froh und frisch mein its requisite heroism, and the closing Treue Liebe dauert lange was a hymn to the power of true love, with Williams’ rich baritone resonating stately and pensive.

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Julius Drake, photo credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

Viotti makes memorable Cleveland debut in Russo-French program

Cleveland Orchestra
Lorenzo Viotti, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 29, 2019

Prokofiev: Suite from The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33bis
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40
 Encore:
 Gluck-Sgambati: “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Euridice
Poulenc: Sinfonietta, FP 141
Ravel: La valse

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, The Cleveland Orchestra dependably serves a musical feast, and this year was hardly an exception. Friday (coincidentally, the 150th birthday of the orchestra’s founder, Adella Prentiss Hughes) marked the local debut of 29-year-old conductor Lorenzo Viotti. Currently principal conductor of Portugal’s Gulbenkian Orchestra, and dubbed to assume the same role with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra next season, Viotti is a conductor who Cleveland music director Franz Welser-Möst singled out as being especially promising during an interview previewing the current season. Viotti’s colorfully appealing program was bifurcated by nationality with a Russian first half preceding a French second.

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Lorenzo Viotti, photo credit Desiré van den Berg

Prokofiev’s six-movement suite from The Love for Three Oranges opened with the composer’s characteristically vigorous orchestrations, bringing to life the opera’s colorful cast of characters with gentler, dancing winds contrasting. The following “Infernal Scene” was darkly surreal in its unusual timbres, while the “Marche” – the opera’s most indelible quantity – was given a crisply rhythmic and foot-tapping workout. “The Prince and the Princess” made for a lyrical interlude, the deeply touching language anticipating Romeo and Juliet. Viotti roused the requisite virtuosity for the roiling “Flight” that closed.

As central to repertoire as Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra are, the Fourth Concerto has been relegated to periphery, not having been performed by this orchestra since 1996. An arsenal of energy opened, quickly paving the way for the full-bodied entry of the incomparable Yuja Wang. The fiendishly difficult piano writing was easily surmounted by her fleet fingerwork, and about two thirds of the way through the movement, matters burgeoned to a climax as grand and lush as anything Rachmaninov wrote. The solo introduction of the Largo was of deep melancholy, revealing Wang’s lyrical gifts, and in due course aided by burnished strings.

Textures grew impassioned and stormier, leading to the jarring transition to the closing Allegro vivace. Wang’s sleight-of-hand pianism negotiated the jazz-inflected rhythmic complexities, and chains of double octaves were effortlessly delivered with fire and panache. The orchestra supported Wang with a colorful accompaniment – Jeffrey Rathbun’s oboe a standout – culminating in a muscular conclusion. While ultimately perhaps not as memorable as the composer’s other works in the medium, it certainly merits hearings at more regular intervals! Although not indulging the Severance Hall audience in one of her encore marathons, Wang nonetheless responded to the hearty ovation with the wistful lyricism of a transcription from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

The Cleveland Orchestra gave the US premiere of Poulenc’s Sinfonietta under George Szell in 1949, but remarkably hasn’t touched it since. Kudos then to Viotti for resurrecting this vintage gem, which despite its obscurity, local audiences had the chance to hear as recently as this past March on a CityMusic program. The opening movement brimmed with melodies of immediate appeal, piquant and bright, a sort of synthesis of 20th-century sensibilities within a classical economy, invoking comparison to Prokofiev’s Classical symphony. The inner movements were respectively joyfully light-hearted and sweetly songful, the latter with noteworthy solo passages from the trumpet and clarinet. Perhaps an expression of post-war bliss, the finale was utterly untroubled, and delectably so.

Continuing with French appropriations Germanic forms, matters turned to waltz in Ravel’s iconic La valse. Originally conceived for solo piano (heard just the previous weekend in Soyeon Kate Lee’s recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art), the orchestral version shows in no uncertain terms the composer’s stunning mastery of instrumentation. Beginning with barely audible rumbles, a sultry waltz theme took shape, with sumptuous harps adding to the dizzyingly rich tapestry: a glitteringly cataclysmic dissolution of the once venerable waltz.

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Yuja Wang, photo credit Norbert Kniat

 

McGegan’s Cleveland Orchestra program effervesces with classical charm

Cleveland Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, condcutor
Michael Sachs, trumpet
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 21, 2019

Schubert: Selections from Rosamunde, D797: Overture – Ballet Music No. 1 – Entr’acte No. 3 – Ballet Music No. 2
Hummel: Trumpet Concerto in E major
Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D major, Hob. I:104, London

This marked the third consecutive November Nicholas McGegan has stood at The Cleveland Orchestra podium, and his charm and affable spirit without fail warms an otherwise chilly time of the year. The present program straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto the centerpiece, bringing into the spotlight Cleveland principal Michael Sachs. Proceeding in reverse chronological order, McGegan opened with selections from Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde.

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Nicholas McGegan, photo credit Randy Beach

What is known as the overture to Rosamunde was in fact the repurposed overture to Schubert’s earlier (and unsuccessful) opera Der Zauberharfe. A bold sense of drama opened, but the remainder of the work bubbled with a graceful Schubertian charm. The first of the ballets was of a symphonic weight in its Sturm und Drang sensibility, but more mellow material offered contrast near the end, heightened by the clarinet of Afendi Yusuf. One of Schubert’s most cherished melodies, later reused in one of the impromptus for piano as well as the thirteenth string quartet, resounded through a choir of strings and winds in the Entr’acte. Another ballet rounded off McGegan’s suite, given with a rustic abandon.

Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto remained a forgotten quantity until it was rediscovered in the 1950s by trumpeter Armando Ghitalla. Originally cast in the key of E major, Ghitalla opted to publish the work transposed to E flat for ease of playability on the modern trumpet. It continues to be most often heard in the lower tonality today, including in Sachs’ two previous performances of the work with this orchestra. This time, however, Sachs stayed faithful to the composer’s intentions, easily surmounting the inherent technical hurdles. The martial opening was bright and brilliant with the soloist offering a limpid flexibility and climactic trills. The long-breathed tones of the central Andante, interjected by further trilling gestures, were pitted over an undulating accompaniment – a lyrical essay to be sure, but not without a certain grandeur. A jaunty rondo served as the finale, showcasing Sachs’ rapid-fire virtuosity and a never-waning vigor from both soloist and orchestra.

Haydn’s final entry of his long series of symphonies concluded the evening. The attention-grabbing opening made a sharp turn to the doleful minor before this introductory material gave way to the delectably appealing material firmly in the home key of D major. Here and throughout, McGegan drew out a playing in equal parts refined and joyous. The slow movement was a gentle affair, deftly balanced and crisply articulated. A rhythmic vitality served the minuet well, with Jeffrey Rathbun’s oboe of note in the trio. Energy was never at the expense of clarity in the effusive finale, the main subject of which was rooted in a Croatian folk song.

Hrůša explores the end of life through Adams and Mahler

Cleveland Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Joélle Harvey, soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director
Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus
Ann Usher, director
Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus
Daniel Singer, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 14, 2019

Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Following up on last week’s juxtaposition of Shostakovich and Beethoven, Jakub Hrůša offered a second week of incisive contrasts in Adams and Mahler. Both works were concerned in some fashion with the end of life, though of vastly different orientations. Written as a tombeau for the victims of 9/11, Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls received its belated Cleveland premiere this week. Conceived almost immediately in the wake of the events memorialized, the work was first performed in New York in September 2002, and earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year.

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Jakub Hrůša and Cleveland Orchestra and choruses perform On the Transmigration of Souls. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

In addition to large orchestra, chorus, and children’s chorus, the work makes extensive use of pre-recorded electronica, with an elaborate array of speakers wrapping the hall in surround sound. Ambient sounds of the city opened the piece, initially sounding as business as usual, but quickly giving way to sirens and boy’s repeated incantation of “missing.” The choir entered, ethereal and wordless, and strident trumpet solo was heard from an offstage Michael Sachs. It’s a daunting task to adequately capture the emotions of this subject matter in music, and to that end, Adams took pains to eschew any conventional notions of a requiem, instead producing a work with almost no narrative structure, allowing for a multitude of individual responses to its entrancing and mournful solemnity.

Particularly poignant were the recordings of brief tributes to certain victims – one who was described as having “a voice like an angel”: and such a voice we were to hear in the subsequent Mahler. About two-thirds of the way in came a caustic climax, and one could viscerally feel the weight of the events of that day. I would suggest another parallel to Mahler in that it follows a similar arc to the first movement of the Tenth Symphony, spanning roughly the same length, and of autumnal feeling until the shattering crest at about the same point. The music waned, especially doleful as names were read, and matters faded once again into the fabric of the cityscape.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony has been called the most Viennese of his symphonies, following a more traditional four movement structure and of modest proportions in length and orchestration (by Mahler’s standards, at least). It’s a piece thus particularly well-suited to this orchestra, noted for their classical precision and balance as well as a strong Mahler tradition – and documented in a noted recording of this symphony with Pierre Boulez. The sleigh bells that opened made for a fantastical, almost fairy-tale like atmosphere, countered by graceful strings. The apparent naïveté ran only surface-deep, however, with Hrůša probing beyond its appealing veneer. The winds were in fine form, especially principal flute Joshua Smith, bright and bucolic, and the trumpets hinted at what would become the iconic opening of the Fifth. The more impassioned sections could have benefited from greater clarity, but there was a wonderful moment of serenity before the movement’s boisterous end.

Announced by the horns, the second movement was rooted in the ländler, but as through a distorted lens. Concertmaster Peter Otto coarsely played a detuned violin, emulating a folksy fiddle, and Daniel McKelway’s contributions on the clarinet were shrill yet stylish. The ensuing Ruhevoll opened in a divine simplicity, the strings of the orchestra playing with the intimacy of a quartet. In his pre-concert lecture, Bryan Gilliam keenly noted that Mahler created a nostalgia for a world that never was. The brass were particularly warm in the climactic opening of heaven’s gates, with the strings reaching higher and higher, grounded by the angelic harp. A silky clarinet marked the finale, introducing soprano Joélle Harvey, who previously sang Mahler with this orchestra in last season’s performance of the Second. Her limpid and fluid voice offered the Wunderhorn setting much character, closing each stanza with a profundity that gave weight and authenticity to this child’s depiction of heaven.

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Joélle Harvey in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

Apollo’s Fire opens season in brilliant Venetian program

Apollo’s Fire
Jeannette Sorrell, conductor
Apollo’s Singers
Dark Horse Consort

Trinity Cathedral
Cleveland, OH
October 18, 2019

Gabrieli: Canzon in echo à 12, for 3 choirs, Ch. 192
Monteverdi: Cantate Domino à 6, from Motets, Book I
Gabrieli: In Ecclesiis à 14, for 3 choirs, Ch. 78, from Sacrae symphoniae II
Rosenmüller: Sonata No. 12 in D minor
Praetorius: Ach, mein Herre, from Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica
Monteverdi: Chiome d’oro, bel tesoro, from Madrigals, Book 7
Monteverdi: Zefiro torna e di soave accenti, from Madrigals, Book 9
Marini: Sonata in Ecco con tre violini, Op. 8 No. 44
Monteverdi: Duo Seraphim, from Vespers of 1610
Schütz: Jauchzet dem Herren, SWV 100, from Psalmen Davids
Praetorius: Meine Seel Erhebt den Herren, from Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica
Riccio: Canzon a doi soprani in Echo proposta, from Il secondo libro delle Divine Lodi
Gabrieli: Canzon in Echo duodecimi toni, Ch. 180, from Sacrae symphoniae
Monteverdi: Nisi Dominus, Suscepit Israel, and Sicut erat in principiov, from Vespers of 1610

Venice in the Renaissance and Baroque bore witness to an extraordinary flourishing of musical life, the focal point of which was the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica. That venue virtually inspired a whole repertoire of music, tailored to the basilica’s unique acoustics wherein musicians were often dispersed throughout to yield a mystical echo effect. Appropriately styled as “Echoes of Venice”, Apollo’s Fire sought to recreate this body of work in a program curated by musicologist Marica Tacconi, who was on hand for an informative pre-concert lecture. A generous helping of composers who served as the basilica’s maestro di cappella formed the backbone of the program, loosely organized by theme, and was fleshed out with works from a handful of Germans who took clear inspiration from their Venetian counterparts – a testament to the far-reaching influence of this aesthetic.

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Jeanette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire in “Echoes of Venice”, photos credit Apollo’s Fire

For the weekend’s performances, AF was buttressed by the Boston-based period ensemble Dark Horse Concert, adding to the forces cornetti, sackbuts, and additional strings. The opening selection from the younger Gabrieli was lively and conversant, even if the intonation left something to be desired, reverberating throughout the Trinity Cathedral. Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino à 6 was crisply articulated, and introduced the resonant choir. Another selection from Gabrieli followed, stemming from the extensive Sacrae symphoniae (I was reminded of a Cleveland Orchestra program that touched this repertoire a couple seasons ago). Divided into three “choirs”, namely the instrumentalists and two groups of singers, the antiphonal layering achieved a striking effect.

Johann Rosenmüller was the first voice from the north heard on the program in his Sonata No. 12 in D minor. An ensemble of strings grounded by two theorbos gave genuine feeling to the three brief movements that comprised this doleful lament. Praetorius’ Ach, mein Herre could reasonably be mistook for a Venetian work, save for the language. Amanda Powell was the standout in a trio of sopranos that also included Rebecca Myers and Madeline Apple Healey, handling the intricate writing with aplomb. A pair of Monteverdi madrigals rounded out the first half. Chiome d’oro, bel tesoro was marked the rhythmic snap of the strings countered by the angelic blending of the two sopranos, Powell and colleague Raha Mirzadegan. Zefiro torna e di soave accenti charmed in its dance-inflected rhythms, with conductor Jeanette Sorrell leading from the tambourine.

Marini’s Sonata in Ecco con tre violini made for a striking opening to the second half. Beginning as a fairly standard sonata for a solo violin, the soloist was in due course joined by two further violinists stationed elsewhere around the cathedral. The space itself was thus used musically in this mesmerizing echo effect. Monteverdi’s Duo Seraphim, a gem from the Vespers, called upon three tenors – Jacob Perry, Nathan Hodgson, and Nathan Dougherty. Starting as a quite gorgeous duet, midway through the third joined in evocation of the trinity. Heinrich Schütz has justly been dubbed the “Gabrieli of the north”; choirs were positioned in both the front and back to envelop the audience in the euphony of his psalm setting Jauchzet dem Herren. Praetorius was revisited in Meine Seel Erhebt den Herren, bringing forth the same soprano trio as before, a magnificat fittingly magnificent, and the evening closed in the radiance of four further selection from Monteverdi’s Vespers.

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Tenors Jacob Perry, Nathan Dougherty, and Nathan Hodgson perform Monteverdi’s Duo Seraphim

 

An unexpected Severance Hall debut yields appealing results

Cleveland Orchestra
Klaus Mäkelä, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 17, 2019

Messiaen: Les Offrandes oubliées
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
 Encore:
 Tárrega: Recuerdos de la Alhambra
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

Following the cancellation of Jaap van Zweden, the weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts found a substitute in the shape of the youthful Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, poised to become chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic next season. Thursday counted as Mäkelä’s Severance Hall debut, having first conducted TCO at Blossom just a few months ago. Van Zweden’s program stayed intact save for the originally slated opener of Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon, which hopefully can be revisited in a future season. When faced with a last-minute program change, most orchestras would opt for the familiar, but not so for TCO who turned attention to Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées.

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Klaus Mäkelä, photo credit Heikki Tuuli

Dating from 1930, Les Offrandes oubliées is the composer’s first published orchestral work (a piano transcription would follow the next year). Structured as triptych in evocation of the trinity, the plaintive opening was almost monastic in its austerity. The central section contrasted in every way, often violent in intensity, and time stood still in the glacially-paced final panel, entranced in spiritual contemplation – even in spite of the particularly vociferous army of coughers present in Thursday night’s audience.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich was also making his Severance Hall debut, having performed with this orchestra a handful of times at Blossom since 2009. Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 shows the composer at his most lyrical, beginning unaccompanied with a winding and rather unsettling lyricism emanating from Hadelich’s “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius. The orchestra supported him via a colorful accompaniment, with Hadelich in deft balance, always achieving a clear projection. The central slow movement features one of Prokofiev’s most lush and lovely melodies, so different from the motoric and mechanistic works of his youthful years as an iconoclastic firebrand. Near the movement’s end was a striking role reversal wherein Hadelich offered a pizzicato accompaniment to buttress the orchestra’s lyricism. The foot-tapping finale was given with a driving vigor, its dance inflections heightened by the use of castanets, also a nod to where the concerto received its 1935 premiere: Madrid. Hadelich’s encore continued the Spanish thread with a transcription of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the rapid repeated notes of mesmerizing effect.

The finale of the Prokofiev also dovetailed neatly with the closing Beethoven: none of Beethoven’s works invoke dance as much as the Seventh Symphony, which Wagner famously called “the apotheosis of the dance.” The introduction, the longest of any of the Beethoven symphonies, was given with marked weight in hinting at all that was to come. Rhythmic fragments were introduced, eventually coalescing into the movement proper’s thematic material, heralded by principal flute Joshua Smith. Featherlight textures danced, soon to be countered by the might of the full orchestra. The principal winds were all in fine form, the leading force of the orchestra’s seemingly boundless reserves of energy.

Mäkelä rightly conducted the Allegretto not as a funereal dirge, but in emphasizing its songful beauty, with matters solemn and often awe-inspiring. Rambunctious strings took flight in the scherzo, contrasted by the gleaming brass of its trio. The energy was cranked up yet another notch for the finale, taken at a brisk, uncompromising tempo. An all-around strong showing from a talented young conductor.