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 including 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

 

Advertisements

Williams conducts Williams at Severance Hall

Cleveland Orchestra
John Williams, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 8, 2018

Sound the Bells!
Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
“Hedwig’s Theme”, “Nimbus 2000”, and “Harry’s Wondrous World” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“With Malice Toward None” from Lincoln
“Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
“Flight to Neverland” from Hook
A Child’s Tale: Suite from The BFG
“Out to Sea” and “Shark Cage Fugue” from Jaws
Theme from Sabrina
“The Rebellion is Reborn” from Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“Rey’s Theme” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Main Title from Star Wars

Encores:
“Han Solo and the Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back
“The Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark
“The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back

While gearing up for a trio of complete performances of Wagner’s monumental Tristan und Isolde, The Cleveland Orchestra – perhaps by design, perhaps by happy coincidence – presented two radically different programs that nonetheless both bore Wagner’s far-reaching influence: Joseph Suk’s Asrael Symphony, a work of rich (i.e. Tristan-infused) chromatic harmony, and the film scores of John Williams conducted by the composer himself, works that employ a sophisticated use of leitmotifs and scoring for massive orchestra, surely taking an unapologetic cue from late 19th-century Romanticism. Though Williams has conducted TCO on multiple occasions at Blossom, Sunday night counted as his Severance Hall debut, a venue he touchingly referred to as a “magical place.”

CLO040818_028
John Williams and The Cleveland Orchestra, © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

At 86 years old and with no less than 51 Oscar nominations to his name (second only to Walt Disney), there’s quite a sense of occasion in seeing Williams in the flesh, the performance having been sold out since August (and how often does one have the opportunity to hear a conductor lead an entire program of their own compositions?). Despite such acclaim, Williams comes across as remarkably humble and down to earth, in one of his spoken interludes between selections joking that it’s good for the vanity of a composer to present the score without the distraction of the film. The scores certainly thrived as concert music independent of their respective films, and in the hands of The Cleveland Orchestra, never have these iconic film scores sounded so good.

The evening opened with a brief but energetic fanfare in Sound the Bells!, a 1993 work written in honor of the wedding of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako – a festive affair with emphasis on the brass and titular bells. A suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind followed with dissonant glissandos suggesting an alien landscape, with matters in due course turning heroic and quite lyrical. The magical sound of Joela Jones’ celesta was instantly recognizable as “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a leitmotif that binds the music of all the films in the franchise together, even after Williams passed the baton to others. The theme was presented again in the brass, and the music took flight with rapid celesta fingerwork. “Nimbus 2000” featured some featherlight interplay in the winds, while “Harry’s Wondrous World” burst with a youthful vigor, again interpolating the Hedwig motif.

Principal trumpet Michael Sachs has an association with Williams dating back to at least 1996 when he premiered Williams’ Trumpet Concerto, and was thus an ideal choice to deliver the solo part of “With Malice Towards None” from Lincoln. His clarion and stately playing beautifully captured the president’s grace and seriousness of purpose. The first half closed with what Williams referred to as the “last reel” of E.T., essentially a ten-minute tone poem. A graceful theme rose higher and higher as if leaving the Earth, depicting that classic scene of the bicycle flying past the moon.

“Flight to Neverland” from Hook was bold and brassy, the textures dense but never muddled. Scoring for harp and celesta gave the suite from The BFG a fantastical, dreamy quality, and a flute solo from Joshua Smith suggested a certain innocence, countered by more sinister material. Two excerpts from Jaws followed, although neither contained the famous half-step gesture. “Out to Sea” had a nonchalance, unaware of the dangers awaiting, while “Shark Cage Fugue” was dark and dramatic, as impressive a display of contrapuntal mastery as any. Concertmaster William Preucil served as another featured soloist in the Theme from Sabrina, a 1995 remake of the 1954 film starring Audrey Hepburn, to whom Williams dedicated the performance. Preucil’s solo was lush and lovely, and the music clearly came from the same pen as Schindler’s List, evidencing Williams’ more subtle side, aided and abetted by gentle touches on the piano and harp.

Inevitably, the program closed with music from Star Wars, beginning with “The Rebellion is Reborn” from last year’s installment, music calculated to reinvigorate, sounding fresh even 40 years after the original film. “Rey’s Theme” furthered demonstrated Williams’ fondness for the celesta in this affecting character portrait, and the Main Title was given a powerhouse workout. Three encores were played, with additional Star Wars tracks – including a touching rendition of “Han Solo and the Princess” – framing a rousing “Raiders March” from Indiana Jones. It’s worth noting that Williams as well as the orchestra musicians donated their time for Sunday’s performance, with the evening’s proceeds going towards the musicians’ pension fund. A thoroughly enjoyable and memorable entry in The Cleveland Orchestra’s blockbuster centennial season.

Hrůša reintroduces Czech symphony to Cleveland

Cleveland Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Sergey Khachatryan, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 5, 2018

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
 Encore:
 Komitas: Apricot Tree
Suk: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 27, Asrael

While the remainder of The Cleveland Orchestra’s centennial season is being devoted to the Tristan Festival and Prometheus Project, Thursday night saw one final standalone program, juxtaposing a familiar concerto with a forgotten symphony. The weekend’s performances also served as a return of the remarkable young conductor Jakub Hrůša, a podium presence I’ve been keen to see again since attending his Chicago Symphony debut not a year ago.

Brahms’ genial Violin Concerto began the evening, with soloist Sergey Khachatryan. Its gentle, triadic opening recalled Beethoven’s sole work in the medium as well as Brahms’ own Second Symphony, written nearly concurrently – and all three works in question share the sunny key of D major, doubtlessly more than mere coincidence. Despite the initial calm, Khachatryan’s entrance was fiery and passionate, but in due course melted into lyricism. Khachatryan displayed astonishing command of his instrument, from the stratospherically high to the guttural low. The virtuosity of the cadenza was pyrotechnics of substance, never just for show. An uncoordinated orchestral reentry fortunately did little to detract from the serenity of the moments that followed, and expansive movement drew to a close, majestic in its capaciousness.

An oboe melody of simply grandeur highlighted the Adagio, very finely played by assistant principal Jeffrey Rathbun, and later echoed by Khachatryan. A handful of brass flubs were regrettable distractions from this otherwise great statement of repose, as was an audience coughing with a particular zealousness. The finale burst with a Hungarian flare, a nod to the nationality of the concerto’s dedicatee and first performer, Joseph Joachim. Here at last such a stately work became increasingly unbuttoned, and a striking meter change allowed matters to turn even folksier.

Khachatryan returned to the stage with an arresting encore that continued the folk music theme, this time from his homeland of Armenia: “Apricot Tree” by the Armenian priest, composer, and ethnomusicologist Komitas (and also namesake of the conservatory in Yerevan). A dignified theme of modal harmony was countered by writing in the highest registers of the instrument, otherworldly and hardly sounding like a violin, and the work faded away via a sequence of rapid tremolos.

The real discovery came in the second half, devoted to Josef Suk’s hour-long Asrael Symphony. It’s a work which Hrůša knows intimately, having recorded it with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and conducting without score, yet TCO has performed it only twice before, the most recent appearance almost three decades ago. Asrael is the Angel of Death in the Old Testament, and accordingly, it’s a dark and somber work, intended by Suk as an elegy for his teacher (and father-in-law) Dvořák, and later also memorializing his wife (i.e. Dvořák’s daughter), Otilie, who died during the work’s gestation.

The symphony is a five-movement affair, symmetrical in conception, with a central scherzo encapsulated by two funereal slow movements, and bookended on each end with an extensive movement of weight and gravitas – thoughtfully constructed, though at times a bit unwieldy. Stylistically, it’s of a post-Wagnerian sumptuousness and chromaticism – in that regard, a fine prelude to the Tristan Festival. And parenthetically, Suk’s grandson of the same name was a noted violinist who made his American debut here in Cleveland at the behest of George Szell.

The symphony opened in desolation, with a statement of the imposing and recurring Asrael theme presented shortly thereafter. Hrůša skillfully articulated the movement’s vast sonata form, clarifying the dense textures – from the powerful, unforgiving brass climaxes, to the pounding of the bass drum, all of which died away into the nebulous whispers that opened. The following Andante was the work’s tribute to Dvořák, with an incessant stepwise gesture that suggested the elder composer’s Requiem. Long-held notes in the principal winds gave an especially powerful effect, as if suspended in time. A stark contrast was had in the scherzo, nearly in jest, and most memorable was the lovely central section, boasting very fine playing from the harp as well as concertmaster William Preucil, and it built to a statement of great sweep and power. The scherzo material resurfaced and led to a dramatic statement of the Asrael theme.

The Adagio, written for Otilie, was perhaps the heart of the symphony, heartfelt and deeply tragic, highlighted by Preucil’s solos that reached heavenward. Rambunctious timpani marked the energetic finale, with the shrillness of the E flat clarinet among the many colors of its kaleidoscopic tapestry. The movement’s extended coda was Suk at his most original, with its stirring brass chorales and hypnotic trills, and the final moments oscillated between the serenity of the upper registers and the unsettling of the low, with the former getting the final word. Thanks are due to Hrůša for his passionate advocacy of a remarkable work that deserves to be heard.

Piquant Poulenc and rapturous Rachmaninov from Denève and the Clevelanders

Cleveland Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 25, 2018

Poulenc: Concert champêtre, FP 49
 Encore:
 Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in D major, Kk. 96
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Stéphane Denève, poised to succeed David Robertson as music director of the St. Louis Symphony, is a conductor with a magnificent ear for orchestral color. This paid its dividends during his lustrous Cleveland Orchestra program, comprised of a pair of works which could hardly have been more disparate despite being composed only two decades apart: Poulenc’s rarely heard Concert champêtre, and Rachmaninov’s evergreen Second Symphony.

ef514d4cc2e778ed6c96943d0a354f47b38ec26fbig
Stéphane Denève, photo credit Nobuo Mikawa

The Concert champêtre is an odd yet enjoyable concoction, with last weekend’s performances counting as The Cleveland Orchestra’s first traversal of the work. It’s at its core something of an anachronism with the full resources of the modern orchestra supporting a harpsichord soloist, the latter serving as a platform for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of Jory Vinikour. Given the harpsichord’s limited projection, some amplification was necessary, although matters were still occasionally muted, especially when pitted against the sheen of the very fine brass section. Poulenc wrote the work in the late 1920s for Wanda Landowska, perhaps the first modern-day advocate of the harpsichord. It opened with piquant sonorities, bright and sweetly dissonant, and very much of a Stravinskyian neoclassicism. More playful material ensued, which Vinikour gave with high spirits and abandon.

A melancholic sicilienne served as the central slow movement, with the harpsichord most often relegated to an arpeggiated accompaniment, save for a striking passage of rumbling trills in its bass register. The finale opened with a passage for the soloist, the concerto’s most patent Baroque pastiche, sounding as if it was a page out of Scarlatti. A nostalgic evocation of the opening movement was later heard, and in spite of the work’s outward brilliance, it took a much darker turn at the very end. For his encore, Vinikour appropriately selected a Scarlatti sonata (Kk. 96 in D major) – a virtuosic affair, replete with the requisite hand-crossings. 

ct-ent-0311-classical-vinikour
Jory Vinikour, photo credit Nuccio di Nuzzo

There’s little to say in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that hasn’t already been said many times, yet Denève’s reading more than justified a further hearing. Somber cellos initiated the work, soon to be answered by the reassuring warmth of the horns and a lush melody in the violins. The texture built to heart-wrenching swells with conductor and orchestra seemingly in no hurry, savoring the moment while nonetheless skirting indulgence. Powerhouse climaxes were scaled in the development, an extensive exercise in large-scale architecture, with Denève (fortunately) electing for the uncut text.

The Allegro molto was marked by a mercurial vigor and blazing kinetic energy, in due course overturned by an intensely lyrical theme (which, incidentally, I can no longer dissociate from the film Birdman). I’ve long been looking forward to the opportunity to hear newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf tackle the extended solo in the heavenly Adagio, and to say he didn’t disappoint would be a colossal understatement. The orchestra was in fine form in the movement’s outpourings of sumptuous beauty with the high-reaching solos of concertmaster Peter Otto also of note, and the swashbuckling finale brought the work to an enormously satisfying close.

Weilerstein, Gilbert, and Cleveland Orchestra reunite in bracing Barber

Cleveland Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 15, 2018

Dvořák: The Watersprite, Op. 107
Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22
­ Encore:
 Bach: Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 – Sarabande
Dvořák:  Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88

The weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were a reunion of sorts, bringing together conductor Alan Gilbert and cellist Alisa Weilerstein – longtime collaborators with important roots in Cleveland. Gilbert, who would go on to become music director of the New York Philharmonic from 2009-17, had formative years Cleveland serving as assistant conductor from 1994-97; Weilerstein made her professional debut in 1995 as a 13-year-old wunderkind with this very orchestra and Gilbert at the podium. The repertoire of choice this time was the Cello Concerto by Samuel Barber, a work which Weilerstein has championed – and while a major entry in the concerto repertoire for cellists, it’s surprisingly rarely encountered, this being only the second time TCO has performed it.

CLO031518_023
Alisa Weilerstein and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Matters began with an arresting, angular theme and a gritty lyricism occasionally interjected by spiky pizzicatos. The extended cadenza was a monologue that stretched the technical possibilities of the cello, and Weilerstein delivered with an unblinking virtuosity, showing utter command of the work and of her instrument. The angular theme resurfaced in due course for the movement’s muscular conclusion. The central Andante sostenuto was remarkably lyrical if still falling short of the sumptuousness of that in the same composer’s Violin Concerto. A totally different side of the cello was on display here, the singing richness of the solo lines often entering the instrument’s highest register, and Weilerstein’s dialogue with oboist Frank Rosenwein was particularly affecting. The calm repose was duly broken for the tour de force finale. Most imposing was a chorale-like passage with fearsome double stops, and the work closed in gripping intensity. Weilerstein offered a well-deserved encore: the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4, elegant in its stately simplicity.

Works of Dvořák framed the concerto, the opening selection coming from the Bohemian’s late quartet of tone poems. Dvořák lived a decade after completing his final symphony, and seemingly having exhausted all possibilities of that venerable medium, turned to the tone poem, writing to my mind some of his most ambitious music. Vodník (variously translated as the Watersprite or Water Goblin – a character who also featured prominently in Dvořák’s opera Rusalka) was given its first Cleveland Orchestra performance, a testament to the way these works have been overshadowed by the well-worn symphonies. Liquid flutes and flowing strings opened with the music steadily growing in urgency. A tender theme depicted the innocence of the girl from the Czech fairy tale which inspired the piece, with some noteworthy clarinet playing by Daniel McKelway. Gilbert and the orchestra drew out the narrative in delirious detail to its gruesome, somber end.

CLO031518_156
Alan Gilbert and The Cleveland Orchestra

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major rounded off the program, its minor-inflected opening belying its wonderfully sunny disposition. Some particularly graceful passages were given in the flute by Joshua Smith, and the opening movement unfurled in great capaciousness. The Adagio opened in rich resound, with bubbling winds and a lithe solo line from concertmaster William Preucil adding to its pastoralism. Lilting, high-reaching strings marked the folk-inspired Allegretto grazioso, countered by a lovely, untroubled trio, not far removed in inspiration from a Schubert ländler. The declamatory finale opened with pealing trumpets. A more songful theme offered contrast, only to become increasingly rambunctious as the variations proceeded, and I’d be remiss not to give mention to the very fine contributions of clarinetist Afendi Yusuf.

CLO031518_119
Alan Gilbert and The Cleveland Orchestra

 

Shimmering Ravel from Pintscher and Thibaudet

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 22, 2018

Ravel: Suite from Ma mère l’Oye
Ravel: Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand
 Encore:
 Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

While much of this year’s attention in the realm of French impressionism is focused on Debussy, it being the centenary of his death, the weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts opted to acknowledge another anniversary – the 90th of Ravel’s 1928 concert tour across North America, wherein he introduced audiences this side of the Atlantic to many of his works for the first time. The program, a generous sampling of Ravel at his best, was devised by Charles Dutoit, who was to conduct it with several major orchestras across the country, but alas, now that the truth has come to light, TCO and others have severed ties with him – and better late than never. On hand to take the reins was the talented composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, who previously served as this orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2001-03.

CLO022218_228
Matthias Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The lovely suite from Mother Goose opened the evening, the fine flute solo in the “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” setting the tone of a nostalgic look backwards towards childhood. “Tom Thumb” had to be restarted after a minor disruption from latecomers filing in, but once matters got underway, limpid passages in the oboe and English horn conveyed a wonderful innocence, an innocence later marred by the lively portrayal of birds that expunged the titular character’s trail of breadcrumbs. Colorful orchestrations and playful pentatonicism made “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodes” especially charming, while “Conversations Between Beauty and the Beast” was marked by the contrast of Afendi Yusuf’s lyrical clarinet with Jonathan Sherwin’s stilted and lumbering contrabassoon. The concluding “Fairy Garden”, not tied to a narrative, was a magical world of iridescent orchestral color.

Both of Ravel’s piano concertos have long been central to Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s repertoire, and one couldn’t have asked for a more convincing soloist in the idiosyncratic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, cast in a single movement, 18-minute arc. Thibaudet took to the stage looking as dapper as ever in his custom-made Vivienne Westwood suit. The work began with ominous, rumbling tremolos and, most unusually, a contrabassoon solo (what a night this was for the contrabassoon!). A commanding entrance in the piano followed suit, and one had to see it to believe that Thibaudet was indeed playing with only one hand in this powerful extended monologue. In the more lyrical passages, Thibaudet beautifully brought out the melody, a feat for which the left hand is particularly well-suited as the melodic notes are by design played with the hand’s strongest fingers. The pianist was finely abetted by richness of the orchestra, greatly expanded from the relatively modest forces of Mother Goose.

Downward cascades in the piano, later echoed in the winds, marked the work’s livelier second half, dominated by a spunky martial theme and boisterous, jazz-inflected climaxes. An expansive cadenza put Thibaudet in the spotlight once more, and the concerto was brought to an enormously satisfying close, as only someone who has truly mastered this daunting work could do. A rousing ovation brought Thibaudet back for an encore, and in keeping with the evening’s theme, he selected the same composer’s Pavane for a Dead Princess – a perfect choice indeed. When introducing the piece he jokingly noted that this time he’d play with both hands; his performance gorgeously brought out the heart-wrenching melody over the sumptuously chromatic accompaniment.

CLO022218_019
Jean-Yves Thibaudet – playing with the left hand alone

Daphnis and Chloé is best known in the suites Ravel later distilled (the second of the two almost always the preferred choice), but at 50 minutes, the complete ballet remains the composer’s longest and most ambitious work, and it’s a shame it isn’t presented in its original conception more often – especially after a performance as memorable as what Pintscher and the Clevelanders gave. The ballet is particularly remarkable in its scoring for chorus, their wordless vocalizations alternating between open- and closed-mouthed for a variety of striking effects. Appearing early and often, the chorus added a rich layer to the already kaleidoscopic tapestry, further evidence that the well-worn suites are a mere shell of Ravel’s ambition. With several principals sitting out the first half, they appeared with vigor for Daphnis, of particular note was the silvery flute of Joshua Smith, and the winding oboe lines of Frank Rosenwein. Graceful solos were later had by concertmaster William Preucil, while the Danse générale was an energetic affair, boasting a glittering orchestration as only Ravel could do, replete with ample harp and celesta. The nocturne that closed Part I introduced a wind machine, an intriguing effect to be sure, but yet seemed perhaps out of place in a work otherwise so finely crafted (Stravinsky famously compared Ravel’s fastidiousness to that of a Swiss watch).

Part II opened with an interlude, made all the more mysterious by the chorus, and matters built to the aggressive War Dance, and there saw the evening’s most extrovert playing. Chloé’s Dance of Supplication was lush and sensuous by contrast, heightened by an English horn passage from Robert Walters. The familiar Daybreak marked the ballet’s final scene, a shimmering sunrise, with these liquescent rays of light a veritable apotheosis, and a much fuller effect was to be had with the inclusion of the chorus unlike as in the leaner suite. Pantomime was highlighted by an extended flute solo from Smith which represented Syrinx, also bringing to mind Debussy’s work for solo flute on the same subject. A further Danse générale closed the work which saw the chorus at full throttle for a most dramatic finish.

CLO022218_388
Pintscher leading the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus

An evening in the minor with Bernard Labadie

Cleveland Orchestra
Bernard Labadie, conductor
Isabelle Faust, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 15, 2018

Rigel: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 12 No. 4
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
 Encore:
 Kurtág: Doloroso, from Signs, Games and Messages
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550

Despite Thursday evening’s program containing two of the most popular works in the repertoire, matters began with a certified rarity, a little-known work by a little-known composer: the Symphony No. 4 in C minor of Henri-Joseph Rigel. German born but transplanted to Paris, he was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart with no less than fourteen symphonies to his name. The C minor work in question, published in a set of six that comprise the composer’s Op. 12, is one which this weekend’s conductor Bernard Labadie has championed for some time; I recall him including it on a Chicago Symphony program a few years back (reviewed by a colleague here).

Labadie imbued the opening with a nervous energy, a textbook example of Sturm und Drang, and the thematic material was sharply defined, given with an appropriate punch. The Teutonic fire was tempered by Gallic sensibilities during the central slow movement, a graceful, untroubled affair in the relative major, while the minor key intensity returned for the sprightly finale.

More familiar terrain was to be had in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto which brought forth soloist Isabelle Faust. Faust took flight over the orchestra with the haunting, almost mystical theme, a rich lyricism emanating from her 1704 Stradivarius. The rapid scalar passages demonstrated her sound and confident technique (it should be remembered that this concerto was written for the legendary virtuoso Ferdinand David), while she opted for a more burnished tone in the introspective moments. At the movement’s end came a dramatic coda, while an ordinary composer would have closed here, the endless innovation of Mendelssohn’s fertile mind called for a long-breathed note in the bassoon to serve as a seamless transition to the Andante, a sublime song without words.

Further transitional material connected the finale, passionately yearning before giving way to the movement proper, spirited and celebratory. Faust received an enthusiastic and certainly well-deserved ovation – she seemed genuinely moved by it – and treated the audience to a most imaginative encore choice in Kurtág’s Doloroso, atmospheric in its unnervingly barren texture.

One could reasonably trace the Rigel symphony as a distant forebear to Mozart’s incomparable Symphony No. 40 in G minor, it also being a work of searing intensity in the minor. Labadie elected to conduct the Mozart from memory, and the fact that he remained seated at a piano bench did little to detract from the energy he offered. The work began in a whisper, almost sotto voce, with germs of themes building to great pathos, occasionally alleviated by a more lyrical secondary theme. Labadie achieved deft balance of the instrumental voices, and one was grateful that Mozart later rescored the work to include the clarinet as the pair added a lovely and mellifluous contrast.

The Andante served as a respite with the downward cascades in the winds especially charming, while the irregular syncopations of the minuet were dynamically punctuated, countered by the gentler trio (a horn flub or two notwithstanding). The brisk finale was a whirlwind of orchestral effect, one moment in the minor, the next in a joyous major, and perhaps most impressive was the sophisticated fugato, executed with a crystal-clear precision.

Welser-Möst closes winter residency with a festive (and truncated) Seasons

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Golda Schultz, soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 18, 2018

Haydn: Excerpts from Die Jahreszeiten, Hob. XXI:3

It is often joked that one can experience all four seasons during the course of a single day in Ohio, and this was certainly the case on Thursday with The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus performing Haydn’s late oratorio The Seasons, a traversal through each of the titular quarters of the calendar year. This is also unfortunately the season for illness: a matter of hours before the performance, two of the three vocal soloists were forced to withdraw for health reasons (tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who himself was to replace an indisposed Thomas Hampson).

Without sufficient time to book substitutes, an abridged version of The Seasons was arranged, excising all parts for the male soloists. What was salvaged, however, was the not inconsiderable amount of material for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, all expertly prepared and certainly whetting one’s appetite for more. The many gaps were filled in with Welser-Möst’s user-friendly and often humorous commentary, a veritable Cliff’s Notes version of the whole work. As recompense for those hoping for a complete performance, complimentary tickets were offered for the Saturday performance, by which point Schmitt had adequately recovered and a substitute was found in Alexander Dobson, allowing Welser-Möst to close his brief winter residency on a festive note before taking the orchestra on tour to New York and Miami.

CLO011818_212_select
Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

As with each section, an orchestral prelude began Spring, evidencing Haydn as master orchestrator, and here filled with pathos as the coldness of winter gradually subsided. For these performances, Welser-Möst opted for the German version of the text, although Haydn simultaneously prepared an English setting to appease his considerable following in London. The chorus sang of the sweetness of spring, given with a fittingly sweet tone, and a fugue brought matters to a resounding close – and the contrapuntal writing surely didn’t go unnoticed by Beethoven when writing his own major choral works.

Soprano Golda Schultz had a lovely aria in Summer; when singing of a shepherd’s reed, she was in poignant duet with oboist Frank Rosenwein. While the soprano’s role is perhaps the smallest of the three soloists, without her male counterparts on Thursday Schultz shined as the star of the performance. A tempest filled with Sturm und Drang broke the haze of summer (again, an almost certain inspiration for Beethoven in his Pastoral symphony) before closing in a peaceful evening. Regrettable, though, that the imitations of frogs and other summer wildlife had to be cut. The scheduled intermission following was also jettisoned, and rightfully so as the excerpts totaled about 70 minutes, roughly half the length of the complete piece.

CLO011818_178
Franz Welser-Möst addressing the audience

A rustic and halcyon mood characterized Autumn, with a bevy of hunting horns serving as a rallying call and gestures in the orchestra that suggested barking dogs. The rousing chorus told of the joys and bounty of the harvest, replete with wine and bacchanalia. At one point, the orchestra imitated the folk sounds of bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy. The prelude to Winter painted a barren landscape, but Schultz’s aria added warmth to the cold in displaying the full operatic potential of her instrument. Near the work’s end, one found a meditation on the cyclical nature of life as symbolized by the recurrent seasons (and I couldn’t help but being reminded of the similar themes conveyed in the concluding scene of The Cunning Little Vixen, with which this season began), and a final song of praise brought the oratorio to a resplendent close.

A tip of the hat to all involved in successfully pulling off a radically altered performance on exceptionally short notice. While it goes without saying that this cut-and-paste version was a bit disjointed, I wondered if it was altogether necessary to attempt to fill the gaps instead of letting the music speak for itself, abridged or otherwise. Nonetheless, Welser-Möst’s commentary was well-received and in dutiful service to the score. In his opening remarks, executive director André Gremillet described the evening’s performance as a “unique concert experience” – that it surely was, and in the best way possible.

CLO011818_684
Golda Schultz and Franz Welser-Möst

Guerrero and Cleveland Orchestra serve sumptuous Tchaikovsky over Thanksgiving weekend

Cleveland Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 26, 2017

Copland: El Salón México
Paulus: Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra
 Encore:
 Bach: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29 – Sinfonia (transc. Dupré)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, The Cleveland Orchestra presented a colorful program, each work fittingly rich and delectable as per the spirit of the holiday. On the podium was Costa Rican native Giancarlo Guerrero – currently music director of the Nashville Symphony, he is a familiar face to this orchestra having served as principal guest conductor of their Miami residency from 2011-16. The program opened with two attractive American works, serving as a lighter amuse-bouche before Tchaikovsky’s deeply tragic Fourth Symphony.

Guerrero9_study2 (credit Ma2la)
Giancarlo Guerrero, photo credit Tony Matula

Copland’s El Salón México marked a turning point in his career as looked towards folk music for inspiration, a style with the immediacy and appeal that would make him a populist sensation. Its boisterous opening brought to life a kaleidoscopic Mexican street scene, and potpourri of dance hall folk themes followed in due course, but as refined through lens of the classically trained composer. The performance was especially commendable for the handling of the work’s rhythmic complexities, particularly in the piano and percussion.

Stephen Paulus is a composer with an important Cleveland connection, having written his Violin Concerto No. 3 for concertmaster William Preucil in 2012. He also has no less than four organ concertos to his name; the aptly titled Grand Concerto, dating from 2003, was his third entry in the medium. It proved to be a fine showpiece for Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs as well as a good cause for bringing the console of the remarkable Norton Memorial Organ front and center.

dc7cc7_e26faaf5ad7848f6b3e26c0dca899ab0~mv2_d_5472_3648_s_4_2
Paul Jacobs, photo credit Shanghai Conservatory

In spite of the marking “Vivacious and Spirited”, the opening movement began mysteriously, grounded in the low strings and bottom registers of the organ. A duet was to be had between Jacobs and principal flute Joshua Smith, the latter’s instrument perhaps being the orchestral instrument most akin to the organ in that they both produce sound via a column of air traveling through a metallic cylinder. Matters became increasingly exuberant to live up to the composer’s indications, however, and the swashbuckling ending was nearly cinematic in its big-boned melodies.

Marked “Austere – foreboding”, the central movement was of great contrast to the opening, beginning in rigid stoicism, almost religious in discipline – it should be remembered the Paulus was an accomplished voice in the field of sacred music – and the movement built to a powerful chorale. “Jubilant” was a fitting description of the finale’s carnival-like atmosphere, replete with some dazzling footwork from Jacobs in the organ’s pedals. Jacobs indulged the audience with an encore, a wondrous account of the sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata BWV 29 in a transcription for organ. To my mind, more was said in those few minutes than in the entire duration of the Paulus concerto, enjoyable as it was.

Following intermission, Guerrero returned to conduct the main course from memory, namely Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. The arresting opening in the brass, symbolizing fate, was so unforgiving as to suggest that the inevitability of one’s fate was already sealed. A nervous theme began the movement proper, and the principal winds were in in fine form during a section of downward cascades, a gentler moment in this movement of searing passion. The Andantino in modo di canzona began with a plaintive oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, not as tragic as the preceding but still of deep melancholy, and the burnished tones of the cellos followed suit. A skittish pizzicato characterized the lighter scherzo, later countered by a Slavic folksong in the winds, played perhaps a bit too shrill. The powerhouse finale ramped up the decibels, only for the fate motive to make a fearsome return, rendering the exultant conclusion an unnervingly hollow victory.

Organ
Severance Hall, Norton Memorial Organ front and center

Ashkenazy and Ax in an inspired partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 3, 2017

Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor, Op. 20
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
 Encore:
 Schumann: Des Abends, No. 1 from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

In the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert on home turf since returning from an extensive – and by all accounts, highly successful – European tour, the stage of Severance Hall boasted the distinguished presence of two of their most veteran collaborators. Serving as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor from 1987-94, Vladimir Ashkenazy made his first podium appearance in Cleveland since 2010. A pair of works by Elgar framed an early Beethoven piano concerto, the central work bringing forth the much-admired Emanuel Ax.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Vladimir Ashkenazy, photo credit Keith Saunders

Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra is the work of burgeoning yet not fully formed talent, but as attractive as it is compact at just over ten minutes in duration. The lilting first movement sounded quite literally piacevole (“pleasant”) in the Cleveland strings, highlighted by a solo passage from concertmaster William Preucil. The songful Larghetto was the heart of the work, and a sure sign of all that was to come for the composer, while the brief finale recalled the opening in its return to triple meter to neatly bookend the work.

A gentle outlining of the tonic C major triad opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and grew in urgency to introduce Ax’s sparkling entry in the solo piano. Ax’s graceful playing flowed with an effortless charm, while there was much heightened drama in the development as Beethoven began to break away from Mozart’s model of the classical concerto, and the extended cadenza showed Ax as a fiery virtuoso. In the slow movement, one was immediately struck by the inclusion of the piano in the opening breaths, and this music of great beauty was further enhanced by the singing clarinets. At the other end of the spectrum was the jocular concluding rondo which bordered on the rambunctious. Ax responded to the warmly enthusiastic reception that followed with an deeply lyrical account of Schumann’s Des Abends (incidentally, a favorite encore of the pianist, having been his choice for the two previous concerto appearances of his I’ve seen – see here and here).

Emanuel Ax_by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax, photo credit Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Written only a few years after the Serenade, Elgar’s Enigma Variations show him at the height of his compositional powers, and was a work that ensured his enduring fame. The theme was presented not without a shroud of mystery – enigmatic indeed – while the first variation was a loving portrait of the composer’s wife, Alice. A variegated chromaticism made the second variation a more pedantic affair, while interjections from the bassoon gave the following a childlike, impish humor. A rich viola solo marked the Ysobel variation in a nod towards the titular violist, and its successor (“Troyte”) was boisterous and big-boned.

The famous “Nimrod” variation was predictably a highpoint, its lush textures building to a cathedral-like resound. Given his long association with several of the London orchestras, it seemed Ashkenazy was able to offer particularly keen insight into this quintessentially British music, “Nimrod” being perhaps the British equivalent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. In contrast, the “Dorabella” variation was featherlight and stammering. A wistful cello solo made for a somber tribute to Elgar’s cellist fried Basil Nevinson, and the penultimate variation featured a fine clarinet solo from Afendi Yusuf in an invocation of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The last variation was Elgar’s portrait of himself, grandiose, and with the self-assurance of a composer utterly convinced of his abilities (albeit a bit more modest than Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben). Surely a high mark of the banner centennial season, let us hope Ashkenazy’s next appearance does not entail another seven year wait!