Summers@Severance closes in homage to 18th-century masters

Cleveland Orchestra
Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
August 24, 2018

Handel: An Occasional Oratorio, HWV 62 – Overture
Haydn: Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major, Hob. XVIII/11
Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K183

This summer’s concluding offering at Severance Hall from The Cleveland Orchestra culled three masterworks from the 18th-century, compressing the tried-and-true overture-concerto-symphony program format to just over an hour. Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was conductor Jonathan Cohen, a specialist in this repertoire of particular note as artistic director of the early music ensemble Arcangelo.

The earliest work was presented first, namely the overture to Handel’s Occasional Oratorio in its first Cleveland Orchestra performance. Cohen led the reduced, almost chamber-sized orchestra in tight direction from the harpsichord, with the overture opening bold and stately, contoured by the dotted rhythms as per the French style. The small brass section added a sheen of brightness, and following the introductory material, matters took off via the fleet strings. Cast in four sections, the penultimate featured a lovely long-breathed oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, and the work concluded in a brief but jubilant march.

Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major served as a platform for another local debut, that of South African keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. The opening movement was lithe and sprightly, encouraged by Bezuidenhout’s crisp playing, direct in expression and always of utmost economy. The cadenza demonstrated his fine technique, but not without moments of introspection. In the slow movement, the sweet lyricism offered repose if not quite achieving the rapt beauty one would find in a Mozart concerto, and Hungarian finale recalled the composer’s dutiful service to the Esterházy family. Bursting with a folksy joviality, a vigorous theme in concert with the horns was of particular delight.

Mozart’s first minor key symphony – No. 25 in G minor – concluded the evening (incidentally, a few months prior TCO traversed Mozart’s only other minor key symphony, also in G minor). Opening in energetic Sturm und Drang, a looming darkness was assuaged by a singing oboe line and the buoyancy of the dance-like secondary subject. The delicate gestures of the Andante counted as calm following the storm, while the main theme of the ensuing minuet was sharply punctuated, contrasted by the mellifluous winds and brass of the trio – though here and elsewhere regrettably plagued by intonation issues. A nervous energy began the finale, its potential soon becoming kinetic to guide the work with inevitability to its ominous conclusion.


Hough and Imani Winds a sheer delight in Mostly Mozart’s A Little Night Music

Stephen Hough, piano
Imani Winds
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
August 10, 2018

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque
Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K452
Poulenc: Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, FP 100

Poulenc, arr. Hough: No. 1 from Trois mouvements perpétuels, FP 14

Right on the heels of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s concluding performance of the summer season, one had a late-night opportunity to see pianist Stephen Hough in a much more intimate setting: a remarkable chamber music performance with the Imani Winds at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, part of the festival’s A Little Night Music series. Hough opened the program sans winds in a luminous, shimmering account of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Debussy is a composer to whom Hough has recently turned ample attention, releasing a very fine all-Debussy album at the beginning of the year (although one would need to look to his French Album for a recording of the present work). The acoustics in the Penthouse were a bit dry, but the striking setting of flickering candlelight and the Manhattan skyline made it a small price to pay, an atmospheric complement to the rapturous beauty of Hough’s pianism.

Stephen Hough, photo credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

The remainder of the brief program was devoted to sterling examples of chamber works for piano and winds by Mozart and Poulenc. Hough noted that these disparate composers had little in common musically save for their wry sense of humor. A stately introduction opened the former’s Quintet (K452), giving way to a jaunty primary theme which beautifully melded Hough’s elegant keyboard playing with the graceful winds – a harmonious blend of diverse timbres. The Larghetto was sweet and dulcet in its delicate trills and ornaments, and an almost sinfully sumptuous melody was passed through the winds. The finale was a jovial affair yet in no apparent hurry with a lyrical subject at its core.

Poulenc’s Sextet, dating from the early 1930s, added the flute to the forces onstage. The commanding opening brought to life a scene bustling with coloristic contrasts and manic syncopations evoking American ragtime. A searching monologue in the bassoon (Monica Ellis) and impressionistic writing from the piano offered some introspection, only for the movement to conclude in a dramatic flourish. An underlying melancholy – perhaps another parallel to Mozart – was palpable in the central divertissement with some especially fine playing from oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. More frenzied contrast was manifest in due course, with a rambunctious and perky finale leading inexorably to a bright and brilliant end.

A lone encore continued the ensemble’s exploration of Poulenc, namely Hough’s own transcription for the sextet of the first of the Mouvements perpétuels (originally a work for solo piano). Hough was certainly apt in remarking it had “not a bit of angst”, and the seamless performance closed the evening in pure delight.

Imani Winds, photo credit Matt Murphy

Blomstedt and Brahms: an inspired pairing

Cleveland Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 27, 2018

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

The opening Summers@Severance evening for this season saw the return of Herbert Blomstedt, remarkably now 91 years old but hardly flagging in vitality. Draped in a white coat, he dressed the part of the elder statesman that he is, masterfully leading the orchestra in a single work, namely Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Tonight sees him reprise the program at Blossom with the addition of Mozart’s Jupiter – while I wished that or at least an overture could have padded out Friday’s brief program, the gripping performance certainly mitigated the desire for more music.

160519 GC
Herbert Blomstedt, photo credit Gert Mothes

Blomstedt’s graceful, batonless conducting produced the gentle rise and fall of the primary theme, and the balance he achieved was quite idiosyncratic – rather than opting for a homogenized sound, each instrument family was clearly delineated in a striking array of coloristic variety. During the development, the main theme resurfaced as a stentorian skeleton of itself to mesmerizing effect, and matters built to searing passion and heightened drama. An arresting horn call opened the slow movement, only to give way to graceful and peaceful plodding, rallying to vigor as needed. A fine clarinet solo from Daniel McKelway was a memorable highlight.

The scherzo was given a spirited workout, gleaming with brassy exuberance and the unmistakable ring of the triangle. A progression of eight deftly sculpted chords served as the bedrock of the imposing passacaglia finale. Prominent roles for each instrument abounded in the movement’s intricacies, almost like a concerto for orchestra, and Blomstedt guided his colleagues to a blistering conclusion.

In other Cleveland Orchestra news, concertmaster William Preucil was officially suspended earlier in day in response to multiple allegations of sexual assault, right on the heels of a major exposé in The Washington Post detailing assault in classical music circles. As noted in the linked article, some of these allegations have been public for over a decade – I was relieved to hear of some decisive action taking place, overdue as it might be.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season: Top 10 Performances

The Cleveland Orchestra’s banner centennial season has come to a close, although music director Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra are hardly resting on their laurels: this weekend sees them present the complete Beethoven symphonies in Vienna, with the cycle to be repeated in Tokyo the following. Below I’ve listed my top ten picks from the season in roughly descending order, with links to my reviews on here and on Bachtrack.

  1. Tristan und Isolde – This was hands-down the 100th season highlight. The Cleveland Orchestra’s first complete traversal of this epochal opera since 1933, this performance for the ages featured top-drawer orchestral playing from what sounded like a seasoned operatic ensemble, and a stunning Nina Stemme as the preeminent Isolde.
  2. The Cunning Little Vixen – Speaking of opera, the season opened with a revival of Yuval Sharon’s groundbreaking production of The Cunning Little Vixen. A stellar cast was augmented by the ingenious use of digitally projected animations.
  3. Welser-Möst and Mahler 9 – FWM opened 2018 with a valedictory performance of Mahler’s autumnal Ninth Symphony, thoughtfully paired with a recent work of former composer-in-residence Johannes Maria Staud. Welser-Möst previously turned attention to Mahler early on in the season with a gripping reading of the Sixth.
  4. All Ravel with Pintscher and Thibaudet – The glittering splendor of Ravel’s orchestral writing was on full display in an evening surveying his major works, including the complete Daphnis et Chloé (with choir), and the Left Hand Piano Concerto with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, one of the work’s greatest champions (after which the pianist indulged in a gorgeous encore of the Pavane pour une infante défunte).
  5. MTT and Trifonov – Not having conducted TCO since 2006, Michael Tilson Thomas made a welcome return in an enticing Russian program, highlighted by pianist Daniil Trifonov’s powerhouse Prokofiev.
  6. Welser-Möst’s Beethoven symphony cycle – Under the moniker of The Prometheus Project, the season concluded with the nine Beethoven symphonies and a selection of the composer’s overtures. The highlights were many, but I was particularly taken by the energetic workout the orchestra gave to the Eroica. The Ninth certainly didn’t disappoint either, a magnificent summation of the cycle.
  7. Ashkenazy and Ax – Another favorite guest conductor who visits Severance Hall all too infrequently is Vladimir Ashkenazy. He returned in November to conduct Elgar’s Enigma Variations and a Beethoven piano concerto with Emanuel Ax.
  8. Turangalîla – As remarked upon by the New York Times, it isn’t often one gets to hear the Turangalîla right on the heels of Tristan, but such seems to be par for the course here in Cleveland. Just two months after his Ravel performance, Thibaudet came back in steely-fingered pianistic brilliance.
  9. Mozart with Hamelin and McGegan – Early music specialist Nicholas McGegan led the orchestra in pearly performances of a Mozart symphony and piano concerto, the latter in tandem with the incomparable Marc-André Hamelin (who regrettably does not have a Cleveland appearance scheduled for next season). Less-trodden suites by Rameau and Gluck rounded off the program.
  10. Stravinsky and Beethoven – Keen to include as many seminal works as possible during the centennial season, Welser-Möst conducted a bracing Rite of Spring, prefaced by his own transcription for string orchestra of one of Beethoven’s late quartets – a prelude of sorts to The Prometheus Project.

Other mentions:

Despite the rich offerings from The Cleveland Orchestra, the classical music event of the season was surely Martha Argerich’s much-belated Cleveland debut. This took the shape of a duo recital with Sergei Babayan, and the bulk of the program was dedicated to the latter’s jaw-dropping Prokofiev transcriptions. For those wishing to relive that remarkable evening, the duo recorded the Prokofiev shortly thereafter (the Mozart having already been recorded at the 2016 Lugano Festival).

At the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, the Tetzlaff Quartett gave a memorable performance of Schubert’s expansive String Quartet No. 15 along with works of Berg and Mozart and the heart-wrenching Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130 by way of an encore. The Han/Setzer/Finckel Trio presented all six Beethoven piano trios over the course of two nights, concluding with a fittingly majestic Archduke.

This was quite a year for opera in Cleveland, with Apollo’s Fire looking back to the genre’s genesis in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, a semi-staged production featuring Karim Sulayman in the title role.

For piano enthusiasts, the Tri-C Presents Classical Piano Series is essential; most notable this season was Lise de la Salle’s local debut. Her engaging recital of Schumann and Prokofiev should surely earn her an invitation to Severance Hall.

And the save of the year goes to Franz Welser-Möst for The Seasons. Two of the three vocal soloists fell ill a matter of hours before the performance – what would be a catastrophe for most was seemingly no obstacle for Welser-Möst.  Salvaging the music that could still be performed with the forces available, he filled in the gaps with informative and enjoyable commentary. By the Saturday performance, a full cast was assembled and a complete performance given.

Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season closes in the magnificence of Beethoven’s Ninth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Erin Wall, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
Norbert Ernst, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 17, 2018

Beethoven: Große Fuge, Op. 133 (version for string orchestra)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Choral

Note: for comments on the May 10 performance, inclusive of Symphony Nos. 1 & 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, please see here. For the performances from May 11-13 of Symphony Nos. 2 and 4-8 along with the Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore overtures, please see here.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s watershed centennial season, as well as the ambitious Prometheus Project has reached a glorious conclusion with a pair of Beethoven’s monumental masterpieces. While the biggest draw was certainly the exultant Ninth Symphony, the inclusion of the Große Fuge made the final entry in the series much more than a traversal of that well-known symphony, but a probing survey of the apex of Beethoven’s late style. Originally the concluding movement of the Op. 130 string quartet, the daunting Große Fuge functioned remarkably well independently; presented in transcription for string orchestra, it has appeared with frequency on a Welser-Möst program in spite of (or perhaps because of) its rigor.

Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven
Welser-Möst conducting the Große Fuge, all photos credit Ken Blaze, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The string quartet’s orchestral potential was in full bloom here, immediately apparent from richness of the strings in the jarring opening and spiky dissonances. Calmer interludes only occasionally mitigated the bracing severity of the work, and it was quite a sight to so many bows in perfect synchronization, even in the most dizzyingly complex passages wherein Beethoven fully realized his contrapuntal potential hinted at in the Ninth Symphony.

That symphony, of unprecedented length during its time, generously filled the balance of the lavish program. Opening with protean, elemental germs of themes, it explored the most fundamental of intervals before coalescing into a rigorous sonata allegro, given with the precision and drive of a well-oiled machine. The scherzo of the Ninth is no lightweight trifle, but a creation just as weighty as the opening movement which the orchestra played with a relentless vigor, at times proceeding with a march-like swagger, elsewhere, as if in ghostly imitation of itself. Rustic warmth from the horns and the songfulness of the strings made for a trio that occupied a world apart. A choir of winds introduced the slow movement, giving way to a theme in the strings of absolute serenity, a moment where such a stormy figure as Beethoven was truly at peace with the world – in line with the love transcendent expressed unambiguously through Schiller’s text in the finale.

Even after two centuries, the vast closing movement stands in a class of its own in its ingenious melding of orchestra, choir, and soloists, as well the way it manages to encapsulate the entire symphony as a unified whole. A striking bitonality functioned as a call to arms, the climax of the tension between D minor and B flat major established early on. The main theme of each preceding movement was presented sequentially, a reminiscence as refracted through a newfound vantage point and punctuated by instrumental recitatives. The “Ode to Joy” first surfaced in the low strings, seemingly innocuous but blossoming to the full orchestra in due course.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton had a commanding recitative in the work’s first vocal appearance, delivering text written by the composer himself as a prologue to Schiller’s poem. There was a satisfying sense of coming full circle in engaging Burton for the season finale as he had last appeared on this stage during the performance of The Cunning Little Vixen with which this season began. The quartet of vocal soloists was remarkably well-balanced and of a natural chemistry; tenor Norbert Ernst had a notable moment during the movement’s “Turkish” episode while Erin Wall and Jennifer Johnston filled out the upper registers. Most impressive, however, was the stunning power of the chorus, particularly in the dazzling fugato, expertly prepared under the direction of Lisa Wong (who was officially promoted to chorus director just the day before). In taut cohesion with their orchestral counterparts, they led the symphony to a close of magnificent splendor, a memorable end to a memorable season.

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Welser-Möst continues to hit high marks in Beethoven symphony cycle

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH

May 11, 2018
Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

May 12, 2018
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

May 13, 2018
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, Pastoral
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a

Note: for comments on the May 10 performance, inclusive of Symphony Nos. 1 & 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, please see here. For the May 17 performance of Symphony No. 9 and the Große Fuge, please see here.

A long weekend, abounding in musical riches, saw the bulk of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Prometheus Project. Matters began Wednesday evening with a fascinating conversation between Franz Welser-Möst and noted Beethoven scholar Mark Evan Bonds, musicology professor at the University of North Carolina, moderated by Case Western’s Francesca Brittan (see below). This duly set the tone for the festival’s rigor, and afforded the opportunity to dive much more in depth than a typical preconcert lecture. Installments of the Beethoven symphony cycle were presented in succession from Thursday through Sunday, each program including a pair of symphonies and an overture, and the magnificent Ninth Symphony is to receive three performances the following weekend.

The declamatory and defiant opening of the Egmont overture began Friday evening’s performance, a performance of tightly-wound nervous intensity, made all the more gripping by its imposing sonata form and a conclusion signaled by the heroic shift to major. Despite being a markedly lighter affair than its immediate predecessor and successor, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major began with an introduction in the parallel minor, one of the composer’s most pathos-ridden statements. High spirits took command in due course, however, and the Allegro vivace proceeded totally unfettered, replete with delightful downward cascades of bubbling winds. Serene, untroubled strings opened the Adagio, occasionally becoming stormier via interjections from the brass, while the sweet lyricism of Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet served as a highpoint. The vivacious scherzo achieved contrast in the more relaxed trio, invoking the winds as punctuated by string filigree, and the pulsating volleys of the rapid fire finale closed the work in breathless excitement.

The massive sense of scale in the Seventh Symphony was immediately clear from the weight of the extensive introduction, the most of substantial of any of the Beethoven symphonies. Principal flute Joshua Smith introduced the primary theme of the first movement proper, characterized by the swagger of dance rhythms and top-drawer playing from the principal winds. Funereal pulsing in the low strings marked the famous Allegretto, yet Welser-Möst ensured matters never dragged as a dirge, and passages in the major offered a lustrous contrast. In jarring divergence, the scherzo positively bounded from the stage, and the trio began in mellifluous harmony only to become increasingly muscular, while the rambunctious finale was exultant in its exuberance.

Saturday’s program began with the Coriolan overture, a work of fiery Sturm und Drang which the orchestra whipped off with a singular intensity; unlike the Egmont, this did not end in triumph but in quiet pathos. At first glance, the Symphony No. 8 in F major harks back to the lightness of the composer’s two earliest symphonies, but this was done as through the lens of over a decade of unparalleled musical development and discovery. The opening movement was playful but not without an underlying seriousness of ideas, and its boundless energy brought to mind TCO’s performance of the work I caught in Chicago last year. In place of a slow movement, here Beethoven elected for an Allegretto scherzando, evidencing the composer at his most tongue-in-cheek – so far-removed from the stormy (and rather romanticized) persona with which we associate Beethoven. A minuet took the place of the scherzo, which by then (1812), was all but nostalgic. The orchestra gave it a courtly reading in spite of the recurrent bold and brassy interjections, and the trio boasted an almost Romantic lyricism. An affair of stark dynamic contrasts, the finale was given at an unrelenting pace.

Although I found Welser-Möst’s generally brisk tempo choices in these symphonies agreeable, I did feel the first movement of the Fifth was a tad rushed. Still, he did the impossible in managing to breathe fresh life into this hyper-familiar work. Frank Rosenwein’s extended oboe solo in the development was a standout, and the movement’s end saw an exclamation of “bravo” from a zealous audience member – premature, but an accurate assessment nonetheless. Cast in A flat major – a rare key in the Beethoven symphonies – the slow movement was given a divinely beautiful reading, full of much-needed repose and hinting at the work’s ultimately triumphant trajectory. In the scherzo, the four-note rhythmic gesture that bound the symphony together surreptitiously emerged from the shadows, and initiated a massive build-up to the blinding brilliance of the finale, given with the orchestra’s corporate strength. A ghostly return of the third movement’s main theme suggested the road to the C major glory wasn’t one of effortlessness, but the long-winded coda savored and reveled in the hard-earned victory.

Sunday afternoon’s installment was presented in perhaps the reverse order expected, with a later symphony preceding an earlier one and concluding with an overture. It might seem that in the Pastoral symphony Beethoven shed his ideal of absolute music as perfected in the first five symphonies, exchanging abstraction for concrete depictions, but in the program notes, Welser-Möst argued that the symphony is more than a mere portrayal of nature, but rather a representation of the feelings associated with each movement’s poetic title. The opening movement radiated a fittingly pastoral charm, aided and abetted by the gracefulness of the Cleveland strings, and the development added some variety in the movement’s otherwise glacial harmonic pace.

The serene slow movement exuded the untroubled bliss of a natural paradise, noted for the richness of the cello section and concluding with a series of birdcalls, once again evidencing the strength of the principal winds. Movements 3-5 created an ingenious dramatic arc, although Beethoven began with a dance movement, not yet veering far from tradition. The dance was filled with the free abandon of country folk and unbuttoned joie de vivre. A tempest of great ferocity served as the penultimate movement, filled with a Romantic pathos and brooding, while Yusuf’s clarinet broke the storm in a tranquil transition to the conclusion, the most wondrous and majestic music one could ask for.

Martial chords punctuated the introduction of the Second Symphony, leading to a rambunctiousness not without a certain grandiosity that clearly set the stage for the Eroica – already a major leap forward from the First. The sublime slow movement had a calmness that seemed to preview that in the Sixth, while all smiles were to be had in the scherzo (now firmly in place of the minuet) as well as the jocular, spirited finale, shining in the sunniness of its D major tonality. Closing the memorable weekend was the third (later discovered to be, in fact, the second) incarnation of the overture to Leonore. The 15-minute work encapsulated the darkness and drama of the opera, interspersed with expressions of heroism, and guided by a longing for freedom and light – very much in line with the composer’s political leanings – and an offstage brass section showed Beethoven as ever the effective dramatist.

Cleveland Opera Theater presents an effective and affecting Butterfly

Cleveland Opera Theater
Maltz Performing Arts Center
Cleveland, OH
April 29, 2018

Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Dina Kuznetsova, Cio-Cio San
John Pickle, B.F. Pinkerton
Young Kwang Yoo, Sharpless
Sandra Ross, Suzuki
Mark James Eldred, Goro
Jason Budd, Il Bonzo

Domenico Boyagian, conductor
Scott Skiba, stage director
Matthew D. McCarren, scenographic design
Brittany Merenda, projection design

Make no mistake, opera is alive and well in Cleveland. In the last three weeks, Clevelanders were afforded the opportunity to see as many operas – Apollo’s Fire in L’Orfeo (arguably the first great opera ever written), the magnificent Tristan und Isolde from The Cleveland Orchestra (arguably the most groundbreaking opera ever written), and last but not least, Cleveland Opera Theater’s Madama Butterfly (arguably the most popular opera ever written). The venue of choice for Butterfly was the beautiful Maltz Performing Arts Center, a former synagogue now used as a performance venue by CWRU, and a space which lent itself well to opera.

The work opened in faux-orientalism, evocative of its Japanese setting, and while the 30-piece orchestra sounded a bit thin for the lushness of Puccini, they generally exhibited a consummate level of playing and fine support for the vocalists under the baton of conductor Domenico Boyagian. (And amongst their ranks was concertmaster Aubrey Murphy who formerly held that title at the Sydney Opera House). The bulk of the scenery was comprised of a Japanese-style screen that stretched the length of the stage, often enhanced with lighting or projections – simple yet effective. When Pinkerton was introduced, a brass choir intoned The Star-Spangled Banner in stark contrast to the previously heard orientalism. John Pickle played a confident Pinkerton (substituting for an indisposed Timothy Culver), and was especially fine in the ensuing duet with Sharplessthe latter role given by the convincing Young Kwang Yoo – and both voices combined in a truly Puccinian sumptuousness.

In Cio-Cio San’s (i.e. Butterfly) first appearance, she was draped in a radiant pink, and the wedding which quickly followed was presented with ample pageantry. The Star-Spangled Banner was pitted atop the oriental pentatonicism, signifying the (tenuous) union of the two cultures. A booming Jason Budd appeared as Il Bonzo, admonishing and ultimately renouncing Butterfly, dramatically enhanced by the gong – as sure a sign as any that the bliss of the newlyweds would be short-lived. Dina Kuznetsova was memorable in the title role and had excellent chemistry with Pickle as evidenced by the gorgeous extended duet that closed the first act.

Three years separated the following act, and the set depicted an American flag Butterfly had hung as a beacon of sorts to her husband now an ocean apart – and in keeping with historical accuracy, a 45 star flag was special ordered for the performance. Kuznetsova shone in the opera’s most recognizable excerpt, Un bel dì vedremo – filled with longing and hoping, yet tempered by a more rational perspective, as if she had gained wisdom during the intervening years and knew that all could not be well. And this was indeed confirmed in her drawn out dialogue with Sharpless, in which the truth that Pinkerton married another all but unraveled. The act concluded with the “Humming Chorus”, here portrayed as a candlelight procession with the chorus dispersed throughout the sanctuary. Gentle touches in the harp added to the scene’s ethereal beauty, to my mind, the afternoon’s scenic and musical highlight.

Looming tragedy clouded the opening of Act III, yet there was striking contrast in the warmth of the sunrise. Pinkerton at long last returned (new wife in tow) – noticeably aged – and Pickle portrayed him as not incapable of remorse, having seemingly matured from the Don Juan of his younger days. Still, this did little to mitigate the tragic ending – with Butterfly’s child wrapped in the American flag to signify her loss of custody, she had little recourse but to take her own life to avert the shame she would otherwise undergo. Pinkerton cried out for her, but by then it was too late, and an iridescent butterfly was projected onto the screen – a final image of heartbreaking power.

Set design of COT’s Madama Butterfly, all photos credit Noah Listgarten

Cleveland Orchestra explores “divine ecstasy” in eclectic program

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Vinay Parameswaran, conductor
Lisa Wong, conductor
Iestyn Davies, countertenor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 28, 2018

Gabrieli: Canzon per Sonar Septimi Toni No. 2, from Sacrae symphoniae
Gabrieli: Canzon per Sonar in Echo Duodecimi, from Sacrae symphoniae
Pärt: Magnificat
Gabrieli: O Magnum Mysterium, from Sacrae symphoniae
Kernis: “I Cannot Dance, O Lord”, No. 3 from Ecstatic Meditations
A. Gabrieli: Fantasia Allegra del duodecimo to­no
Gabrieli: Omnes gentes plaudite manibus
Bach: Cantata No. 170: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532 – Fugue

Saturday night marked the final program of The Cleveland Orchestra’s utterly remarkable festival exploring Tristan und Isolde and its incalculable influence. The notion of ecstasy served as a common thread in the festival’s programs, certainly in the opera itself, and even more explicitly in Messiaen’s Turangalîla. Saturday’s program explored ecstasy in music through a religious lens, serving a wonderfully diverse smorgasbord of works that spanned five centuries. The first half was comprised of seven brief selections, thoughtfully strung together as a continuous arc. After introducing the program, Welser-Möst didn’t return until after intermission, passing the baton to Vinay Parameswaran (assistant conductor of TCO and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra), and Lisa Wong, acting director of the Chorus.

Lisa Wong and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Giovanni Gabrieli is often considered a veritable father figure in the realm of brass playing, writing extensively for brass ensembles that would be dispersed throughout the cavernous galleries at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco. Four of his works dating from the late 16th-century punctuated the first half, presented in arrangements for modern brass ensemble by Timothy Higgins, principal trombone of the San Francisco Symphony. In loose approximation of how the works would have performed at San Marco, two brass choirs were positioned at opposite ends of the stage. The Canzon per Sonar Septimi Toni No. 2 was a bright and festive opener, while Canzon per Sonar in Echo Duodecimi had a striking echo effect as suggested by the title with great intimacy of communication between players, even from across the stage.

Principal trumpet Michael Sachs switched the flugelhorn in O Magnum Mysterium, producing a timbre mellow and stentorian. Scored for the formidable forces of four choirs (two vocal, two brass) grounded by the organ as continuo, Omnes gentes plaudite manibus closed the first half in rousing fashion. The brass had a fine vocal quality – at the end unambiguously intoning the “Alleluja” – and were deftly balanced with the singers.

A varied assortment served as interludes between the Gabrieli, beginning with Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat for unaccompanied five-part chorus. Embodying the composer’s iconic tintinnabuli technique, the beauty of sound resonated as if frozen in time – and how well it fit alongside Gabrieli despite being displaced by several centuries. Aaron Jay Kernis’ “I Cannot Dance O Lord”, also scored a capella, offered a more jarring stylistic contrast (it being the program’s most contemporary work, composed in 1999). The choir was quite virtuosic with some colorful word-painting, very literally “whirling” at the close. Organist Paul Jacobs (a local favorite who appeared on this stage as recently as last November) was the standout of the evening, his first contribution taking the shape of the Fantasia Allegra for solo organ by Andrea Gabrieli – Giovanni’s uncle. A joyous and exultant affair, its contrapuntal intricacies were easily surmounted by the organist, a mere warm-up for what was to come.

The concert’s latter half took a rather different form in focusing on two lengthier works, beginning with Bach’s Cantata No. 170, engaging Welser-Möst, Jacobs, and countertenor Iestyn Davies. Welser-Möst imbued the opening aria with graceful, fluid gestures, and Davies offered a rounded and mellow tone, although at certain points I would have preferred crisper diction. The two recitatives (movements 2 and 4) were marked by organ obliggato, while prominent organ colored the central aria (Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen) as well. Here, Davies communicated deep melancholy and made an impressive showing in the melismas. Though concerned with sin, one couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of joy during the running sixteenths in organ of the concluding Mir ekelt mehr zu leben.

Bach’s Cantata No. 170: Iestyn Davies, Franz Welser-Möst, and Paul Jacobs with The Cleveland Orchestra

Jacobs was the sole performer on stage for the program’s remainder, devoted to Liszt’s daunting Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” from Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. An interesting work to include during a festival celebrating Wagner as Meyerbeer’s meteoric success in Paris – particularly with Le prophète – fueled much of the envious German composer’s antisemitism. The Fantasy and Fugue is one of Liszt’s crowning achievements; written contemporaneously with the Piano Sonata in B minor, it too shows absolute mastery of large-scale form. It opened with darkness and foreboding, the dissonances piling on top of one another, and emerged as a free-form fantasy of a vast range of moods and colors. A central slow section presented the most literal statement of Meyerbeer’s chorale which Liszt generally used only obliquely, and offered a meditative respite. Liszt left much of the dynamics and registration open to interpretation; at one point Jacobs opted for some bell-like sororities, striking and quite effective. A fiery transition led to the massive fugue, with contrapuntal complexities defying imagination, Jacobs unleashed a firestorm of startling virtuosity.

Miraculously, the indefatigable Jacobs was still up for an encore, clearly enjoying the magnificent instrument. He returned to Bach in the D major fugue (BWV 532), ending the evening on a markedly cheerier note.

Davies, Welser-Möst, and Jacobs

Cleveland Orchestra reaches ecstasy in Tristan und Isolde

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 21, 2018

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Gerhard Siegel, tenor (Tristan)
Nina Stemme, soprano (Isolde)
Okka von der Damerau, mezzo-soprano (Brangäne)
Ain Anger, bass (King Marke)
Alan Held, bass-baritone (Kurwenal)
Sean Michael Plumb, baritone (Melot)
Matthew Plenk, tenor (Young Sailor/Shepherd)
Francisco X. Prado, baritone (Steersman)

Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

If there is one thing for which Franz Welser-Möst’s tenure in Cleveland is to be remembered, surely it should be his steadfast commitment to opera – hardly surprising for someone who has held music directorships at the major opera houses of Vienna and Zurich. This reached an apex Saturday night with the first of three performances of Wagner’s monumental and incomparable masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. Inclusive of two intermissions, total performance time fell just short of the five hour mark, yet the intensity never waned (although, regrettably, the number of empty seats noticeably increased following each intermission). A platform for the singers above the orchestra was erected at the back of the stage allowing the focal point to shift between the excellent cast and the orchestra. The opera was presented strictly in concert, sans staging, allowing one to be enraptured by the sheer beauty and power of the music undiluted.

Gerhard Siegel (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde), and Okka von der Damerau (Brangäne) with Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The justly famous prelude hovered on the edge of audibility, barely a few seconds in before the first statement of the dissonant Tristan chord that would remain unresolved until the very end. Welser-Möst’s fluid conducting gave the arching melodic lines an inexorable if unfulfilled sense of yearning. In spite of the star-studded cast of singers, one was reminded time and again that the orchestra was perhaps the evening’s biggest standout, sounding like the most seasoned of operatic ensembles. Tenor Matthew Plenk had the first vocal appearance in the role of the Young Sailor, singing unaccompanied from offstage – as effective here as he was in his other minor role of the Shepherd. The extraordinary Swedish soprano Nina Stemme served as Isolde, and much of the first act was centered on her dialogue with her maidservant Brangäne, given by Okka von der Damerau, whose darker-hued mezzo served as an ideal complement to Stemme.

Bass-baritone Alan Held was an imposing Kurwenal, providing a voice of reason amidst the surrounding passion. Gerhard Siegel was a fine if uneven Tristan, his first exchange with Isolde quickly shifting from confrontation to love song. The first act closed with courtly and glorious brass hailing the return of King Marke, to whom Isolde was to wed – an unsettling display of victory given the inevitability of tragedy. Also of note on the instrumentalist front were the solo passages of principal viola Wesley Collins, along with the plangent clarinet and sinuous English horn, the latter of which has unusual prominence in this work.

Siegel (Tristan) and Stemme (Isolde) with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra

The magical second act was centered on the two lovers, opening with a passionate prelude, with now distant horn calls signaling Marke’s departure for the evening. Stemme all but conquered the superhuman demands of her role, slicing through the even the densest orchestral passages, the immediacy and power this preeminent Isolde of our time extraordinary to witness. Siegel, though still arresting and convincing, wasn’t quite an even match as his delivery seemed to fall short of that of a true Heldentenor. Isolde lamented being a slave of the day, introducing the opera’s central duality of light versus dark – it is in the darkness of night where passions can run free and the pair celebrated in triumphant bliss, freed from the boundaries of daylight. A particularly affecting duet took a melody first developed in Wagner’s earlier song Träume from the Wesendonck Lieder. Mathilde Wesendonck, the song cycle’s namesake, was a married woman with whom Wagner was romantically entangled, that is to say, the plot of Tristan had analogs in the composer’s own biography (and parenthetically, local audiences had the recent chance to hear the lieder during a City Music concert this past December).

Damerau’s Brangäne warned of Marke’s impending return, a nearly surreal moment coming from offstage as the couple reached a state of transcendence together. Tristan introduced the passionate rapture motif, and a steadfast pull towards resolution of dissonance was abruptly halted by the appearance of the king, as true resolution could only happen in death. The Estonian bass Ain Anger supplied the role of Marke with sonorous and stentorian resound, aided by some fine playing in the bass clarinet. The somber prelude to the final act was a remarkable expression of pain (it too having roots in the Wesendonck Lieder). A shepherd was accompanied by a lone English horn, which Welser-Möst opted not to conduct, instead allowing the soloist rhapsodic, free-form delivery. Siegel had his finest moments here in Act III, with Tristan giving an impassioned monologue even while mortally wounded. The cellos yearned as Tristan and Isolde were briefly reunited, and Stemme’s closing Mild und leise was utterly rapturous, with the long-anticipated resolution finally arriving, and gloriously so. The shimmering, lustrous final chord left the audience in an almost trance-like state, and closed a performance that will persist in memory for years to come.

Siegel (Tristan) and Stemme (Isolde) with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra


Apollo’s Fire delights in a resplendent L’Orfeo

Apollo’s Fire
St. Raphael Catholic Church
Bay Village, OH
April 18, 2018

Monteverdi: L’Orfeo

Karim Sulayman, Orfeo
Erica Schuller, Euridice & La Musica
Amanda Powell, Messaggera & Proserpina
Amanda Crider, Speranza
Mischa Bouvier, Plutone
Jonathan Woody, Caronte
Carlos Fittante, dancer
Apollo’s Singers

Jeannette Sorrell, conductor & harpsichord
Sophie Daneman, stage director

In the final concert of their 2017-18 season, Apollo’s Fire (belatedly) celebrated the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth with an ambitious presentation of his epochal opera, L’Orfeo. Three performances were given locally, with audiences further afield having the opportunity to see it during AF’s tour dates in Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and Sonoma. Considered the first great opera of the Western canon, L’Orfeo (dating from 1607) was the product of a Florentine movement to resurrect ancient Greek drama which almost surely included singing, and thereby set in motion the birth of opera. With The Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming performances of Tristan und Isolde, Clevelanders thus are afforded the chance to experience two of the most groundbreaking operas within the space of a week.

Karim leading Erica2
Karim Sulayman (Orfeo) and Erica Schuller (Euridice), all photos credit Erica Brenner

I caught the Wednesday performance in Bay Village which, due to the touring schedule, reduced the already rather minimalist staging forces – although in a work where the focal point is the music, this was hardly a detriment. A lone projection screen displayed relevant imagery along with translations in real time – while abbreviated on screen, the thick program books provided one with the complete libretto in both Italian and English. In a nod towards the Greeks, the opera was constructed in five acts preceded by a prologue. Matters opened with a boisterous toccata likely not of Monteverdi’s own device, but a piece meant to announce the presence of the Duke of Mantua who was in attendance at the opera’s premiere. Taking advantage of the spacious sanctuary, the brass entered from the back to dramatic effect and set the stage for La Musica’s heartfelt monologue, the first of Erica Schuller’s two major roles.

Act I was centered on the joyous wedding of Orfeo and Euridice (Karim Sulayman and Schuller respectively) and a duet between the couple was particularly affecting. As with Greek tragedy, the chorus played a central role with Apollo’s Singers very finely serving as nymphs and shepherds to add to the festive atmosphere. Three shepherds were given solo roles, lighter, more one-dimensional foils to the more imposing Orfeo. The bliss was broken in the subsequent act with the foreboding Ahi caso acerbo given from offstage by the excellent Amanda Powell as Messaggera, delivering news of Euridice’s untimely death. One could feel a palpable sense of tragedy in Orfeo’s Tu se’morta, grounded in the deep resonance of the pair of theorbos, played by John Lenti and William Simms. Sulayman was magnificently expressive, and it’s hard to envision a more convincing Orfeo. The once jubilant chorus echoed the pathos, and the three shepherds closed the act in a trio of intricately interlocking lines.

JS sad conducting2
Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire – note the two theorbos

The two subsequent acts took were set in the Greek underworld of Hades, as announced by a brass choir plagued by some fitful intonation in spite of the generally very high level of instrumental playing. In the role of Speranza, Amanda Crider offered her namesake hope to a despondent Orfeo, only to contend with an admonishing Caronte, given by a stentorian Jonathan Woody. Ensembles of strings and brass were dispersed throughout the hall, again making creative and effective use of the acoustic space. Orfeo’s (futile) attempt to persuade Caronte through song was particularly striking in its dizzying melismas often pitted against the organ, the latter played by Harvard musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly. Kelly, who’s book First Nights will be familiar to any college music appreciation student, was also on hand to give an informative and entertaining preconcert lecture.

In Act IV, Powell assumed the role of Proserpina, draped in black (as was the chorus, now embodying the infernal spirits) and addressed Plutone on Orfeo’s behalf. Mischa Bouvier’s booming bass was well-suited to the role of Plutone, who in spite of his severity gave in and allowed Orfeo to reunite with Euridice on the condition that he refrained from glancing back to see if she was indeed following him out of the underworld. Not without human flaw, Orfeo inevitably gave in to temptation – we heard Euridice’s doleful voice one final time and their unhappy fate was irrevocably sealed. While this might seem like far-fetched deus ex machina to modern audiences, I was nonetheless struck how convincingly it was portrayed.

The conclusion of the work has long been fraught with controversy as there are two extant versions of the libretto, both dated 1607 but with markedly different endings. Monteverdi only supplied music for one incarnation of the text and thus the alternate ending is generally overlooked in performance; Apollo’s Fire ambitiously addressed the issue by commissioning principal cellist René Schiffer to set the alternate text to music. Comprising roughly the latter half of Act V, the transition was remarkably seamless as Schiffer preserved Monteverdi’s style with painstaking fidelity. Matters in this ending were a much darker affair, however – instead of ascending to the heavens with Apollo, Orfeo is mocked and attacked during a vigorous moresca by a chorus of Bacchanti (i.e. subjects of Bacchus), enraged at his scorning of women and celebrating in his agony. This gave way to a somber coda, suggesting Orfeo’s reunion with Euridice in Hades.

Jeannette Sorrell conducted with authority from the harpsichord, drawing a detailed, well-balanced, and inimitably Baroque sound from her very talented band of instrumentalists. A strong vocal cast in tandem with stellar orchestral playing and effective stage presentation made for a major achievement.

Bacchae dance
Dancing Bacchanti in the alternate version of Act V