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.

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.

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.

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.

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
 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.

900 Lorenzo-liggend (1)
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
 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.

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.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra deliver an imposing Mahler 5

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 26, 2019

Neuwirth: Masaot/Clocks Without Hands
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

A Mahler symphony is, virtually by definition, an evening’s worth of music in its own right. While including another work on the same program can feel all but gratuitous, a thoughtful choice can offer illuminating possibilities. This was the case Thursday night, with Welser-Möst pairing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with a work by Austrian compatriot Olga Neuwirth. Welser-Möst has a keen ear for identifying compositional talent from his home country by names otherwise little known this side of the Atlantic. Neuwirth proved to be another such discovery, a composer The Cleveland Orchestra has touched just once before in a 2004 performance of locus…doublure…solus, also under Welser-Möst’s direction.

Nathaniel Silberschlag, Franz Welser-Möst, and The Cleveland Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The intriguingly titled Masaot/Clocks Without Hands was originally commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic for the 2011 centenary of Mahler’s death. Saddled with other projects, Neuwirth delayed composition until 2013-14, and noted that the primary inspiration came from a dream about a grandfather she never met. Nonetheless, the spirit of Mahler runs through the work abundantly. The first part of the title comes from the Hebrew work for “journey”; Neuwirth further depicted a central image of a river that connects disparate groups of people on its long journey to the sea. In that regard, I was reminded of Stromab by Johannes Maria Staud – another work by a contemporary Austrian depicting a river which Welser-Möst fittingly paired with a Mahler symphony two seasons ago.

The work began barely audibly, almost unrecognizable as acoustic sound, but soon erupted into cacophony. Stark contrasts and sharp juxtapositions dominated the bulk of the texture, certainly bringing to mind Mahler’s eclecticism. There was colorfully prominent writing for the celesta, and other passages vaguely brought to mind Jewish folk music, appropriate given the Hebrew title. The woodblock served as a ticking clock – sometimes the only instrument playing – yet by the work’s end, high in the stratosphere, any semblance of time had all but dissolved, hence the titular “clocks without hands.” As a sidenote, the orchestra is bringing the program to Carnegie Hall next week, but replacing the Neuwirth with Widmann’s Trauermarsch – another choice pairing, with the piece directly inspired by the namesake opening movement of Mahler’s Fifth.

The bold, declamatory trumpet of Michael Sachs made for an imposing beginning to the Mahler, even as the music morphed into a doleful lament in the strings. The glacial dirge crested to powerful climaxes, but ultimately withered away at movement’s end. A motoric intensity marked the ensuing Stürmisch bewegt, filled with biting ironies. The sun was nonetheless eventually allowed to shine through, and quite brilliantly in a powerful chorale, but only for a fleeing moment as darkness ultimately prevailed. A massive scherzo serves as the symphony’s centerpiece; some commenters have likened it to a horn concerto given its extended solos for that instrument. This was taken quite literally with newly appointed principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlag standing front and center – a supreme test of his mettle, and quite an initiation to this orchestra. His gleaming tone surmounted the challenges presented, and I look forward to hearing more from him.

A scherzo to end all scherzos, the movement is something of hybrid between the vigor of Beethoven’s and the tragedy of Chopin’s, offering some lighter contrast to the rest of the work but not without eschewing its monumentalism. Shrill clarinets added splashes of color, and the wistful pizzicato strings were particularly lovely. The Adagietto unfurled as a divine love song, strikingly scored for strings and harp alone. Welser-Möst’s tempo choice was prime, sumptuous but not indulgent. Matters grew rapturously passionate before quietly fading. A sunny horn call marked the closing Rondo-Finale, quite a shift in texture and character. This was hardly a straightforward rondo, not in the least for the contrapuntal intricacies, performed with crystalline clarity. The chorale theme first introduced in the second movement returned, as if being reunited with an old friend. This time, however, it flourished unencumbered for an unambiguously glorious ending.



Cleveland’s 2018-19 classical music season: highlights and retrospective

As the summer comes to a close and the start of the fall concert season is imminent, I wanted to take pause to reflect on the offerings during the 2018-19 season here in Cleveland, following up on last year’s installment. Let’s begin with The Cleveland Orchestra…

Cleveland Orchestra 2018-19 season: Top 10 performances

  1. Ohlsson plays the Busoni piano concerto – I might be biased having long been enamored by Busoni and his gargantuan piano concerto in particular, but Ohlsson’s Olympian performance was one for the ages, and almost 30 years to the date of his recording the work with this orchestra.
  2. Adams conducts Adams – It’s a major event to see a major composer perform their own works. Adams conducted two of his own scores, including the Cleveland premiere of the remarkable Scheherazade.2, along with a pair of works by Copland.
  3. Hrůša and Shostakovich – Jakub Hrůša is one of today’s most exciting young podium presences, and his Shostakovich 5 was one of the most memorable I’ve heard. The program also included a collaboration with Emanuel Ax in Stravinsky, and a rarity by Kabeláč.
  4. FWM and Mahler 2 – Welser-Möst and Mahler is a reliably satisfying combination, and his powerful reading of the Resurrection early in the season didn’t disappoint.
  5. Denève, Thibaudet, and ScriabinStéphane Denève has been one of the more exciting guest conductors and his fascinating program culminated with a brilliant Poem of Ecstasy, but not before memorable new piano concerto from James MacMillan with dedicatee Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
  6. Roth conducts Petrushka – An important debut this season was that of François-Xavier Roth who offered a colorful Petrushka and well as works by Debussy and Ravel.
  7. Jurowski conducts Shostakovich – Another major debut came from Michail Jurowski (at 75 years old!). The Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Vadim Gluzman was answered by a powerhouse Shostakovich 11.
  8. Ariadne – While perhaps not up to the high bar of last season’s Tristan und Isolde or Cunning Little Vixen, Welser-Möst’s semi-staged performance of Ariadne auf Naxos counted as yet another operatic success.
  9. FWM’s Heldenleben – Prior to a(nother) successful European tour, Welser-Möst guided the orchestra through an arresting reading of Strauss’ extravagant autobiographical tone poem, with equally thoughtful performances of Schubert and Webern preceding.
  10. Metzmacher and the Second Viennese School – Ingo Metzmacher’s return to Severance Hall brought the Second Viennese School’s triumvirate into the spotlight. Berg’s violin concerto was given a heartwrenching performance by Christian Tetzlaff, followed by Schoenberg’s sumptuous and infrequently heard Pelleas und Melisande.

Also of note was Simon Keenlyside’s profoundly moving Winterreise, presented just ahead of his collaboration with the orchestra in Sibelius songs during the last week of the season. Can lieder recitals in the Reinberger be a regular thing, please? And I’d be remiss not to mention the 100th anniversary gala headlined by Lang Lang, filmed for posterity on PBS’ Great Performances.

Further mentions

The highlight of the Apollo’s Fire season came in chamber music performance of Heinrich Biber’s endlessly fascinating Mystery Sonatas.

At the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, the Takács Quartet offered a memorable performance of Haydn, Grieg, and Shostakovich. Appearances from the Juilliard and Ehnes quartets further enhanced another rewarding season of chamber music.

The Cleveland International Piano Competition is to be commended for offering a robust concert series in competition off-years, with 2019 being highlighted by Angela Hewitt’s exploration of Bach’s English Suites.

Of note in the panoply of offerings at the Cleveland Institute of Music were two appearances from Sergey Babayan – an all-Chopin program followed a few months later by a duo recital with former student Ardius Žlabys.

Alon Goldstein’s recital at the Tri-C Presents Classical Piano Series was illuminating and varied, traversing Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti, Bernstein, and most interestingly, what Goldstein purported to be Debussy’s “second” Suite bergamasque, comprised of Masques, D’un cahier d’esquisses, and L’Isle joyeuse.

The prize for the most offbeat presentation of the year goes to Cleveland State University for The Notorious RBG in Song, a song cycle by Patrice Michaels inspired by the titular Supreme Court Justice. Michaels herself and pianist Angelin Chang were engaging performers in this touching tribute. Also making appearances were Lee Fisher, dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and Lieutenant Governor to Ted Strickland, as well as James Ginsburg – RBG’s son, Michaels’ husband, and founder of the Chicago-based Cedille Records whose recording of the work is warmly recommended.

The lineup at this year’s Solstice at the Cleveland Museum of Art was ripe with discovery, including a brilliant performance of Terry Riley’s iconic In C and the Afro-fusion of the Brooklyn-based Anbessa Orchestra.

Halls leads Cleveland Orchestra in moving Mozart mass

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthew Halls, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Krisztina Szabo, mezzo-soprano
Paul Appleby, tenor
Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone
Blossom Festival Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
August 2, 2019

Mozart: Mass in C minor, K427, Great

The Blossom Festival Chorus had one chance to shine during the Summers@Severance series this year, and they more than made it count in Friday’s performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Mozart perplexingly never completed the Mass (and unlike the case of the also incomplete Requiem, he lived for nearly another decade), yet even its fragmentary state, it remains an undisputed masterwork. Several attempts have been made to complete the work, but conductor Matthew Halls opted for the extant torso in a performing edition by Helmut Eder.

Matthew Halls, photo credit Jon Christopher Meyers © Oregon Bach Festival

A weighty pathos, buttressing the epithet Great, was to be had from the onset of the Kyrie. The force of the chorus was quickly introduced, countered by the delicate beauty of soprano Joélle Harvey’s voice (in a passage I cannot dissociate from a memorable scene in Amadeus). A powerful response from the chorus was elicited. Tenor Paul Appleby introduced the Gloria unaccompanied as if to announce the commanding fugue, a rather glorious affair bearing a more than passing resemblance to Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.

Mozart wrote the work with his soprano wife Constanze in mind, and consequently there exists a bounty of wondrous writing for the two soprano soloists – and Krisztina Szabo’s flexible instrument was up to the vocal acrobatics in the “Laudamus te”. Crisp dotted rhythms during “Qui tollis” were emblematic of Halls’ tight direction, and there the choral passages were of a tragic beauty that foreshadowed the Requiem. The closing “Cum Sancto Spiritu” beamed in its contrapuntal splendors, anchored by an imposing bass line in the trombone.

The booming bass-baritone of Michael Sumuel opened the Credo just as Appleby did in the Gloria. “Et incarnatus est” was a highlight in its delicate orchestrations, with fine contributions from the principal winds, strings, organ, and Harvey’s limpid vocals. An ebullient and brassy Sanctus led to the prematurely closing Benedictus, the only time vocal quartet were scored together – one only wished there were more opportunities for the ensemble to explore their obvious chemistry.