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.

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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.

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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.

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Alan Gilbert and The Cleveland Orchestra

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Severance Hall, Norton Memorial Organ front and center

Amidst program changes, Pittsburgh Symphony shines in Mozart and Schubert

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Lorna McGhee, flute
Heinz Hall
Pittsburgh, PA
November 5, 2017

Mozart: Overture to Idomeneo, K366
Mozart: Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major, K313/285c
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, Great

Last weekend’s program at the Pittsburgh Symphony underwent several iterations before taking its final form, and it was a testament to strength of the musicians on stage how polished the end result came across nonetheless. Christoph von Dohnányi was originally scheduled to conduct, but was forced to withdraw all of his autumn engagements (which were also to include appearances with the orchestras of New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago) while still recovering from a fracture suffered earlier this year. Dohnányi’s program was slated to open with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, but when PSO music director Manfred Honeck stepped in, the Bartók was dropped in favor of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra. All was well until harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen had the misfortune of a hand injury, and the program was altered one last time to a Mozart overture and flute concerto.

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Manfred Honeck, photo credit Felix Broede

The overture to the opera seria Idomeneo boasted a stately, regal opening, but soon took some unexpected chromatic excursions. This brief but rousing selection was given with a grandeur and a high-energy workout by the PSO. The Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major brought PSO principal Lorna McGhee into the spotlight, a gifted soloist whom I have previously enjoyed hearing serve on occasion as guest principal at the Chicago Symphony (see here and here).

The opening Allegro maestoso was of pearly balance and clearly delineated proportions, while McGhee’s limber flute passages were a graceful addition, always with an elegant attention to phrasing, and the cadenza showed her at her acrobatic best. The central slow movement featured the unusual inclusion of a pair of orchestral flutes, and McGhee responded to her colleagues in kind with a gorgeous, long-breathed melody. As for the concluding rondo, playfulness and joviality abounded in Mozart at his sunniest, leading up to its unassuming tongue-in-cheek ending.

The one constant of the program otherwise in the aforementioned flux was Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, to make for a weighty second half. Now in his tenth season as music director, Honeck has cultivated a remarkable rapport with the musicians, and this was quite apparent in the way the moving parts of this daunting work came together so seamlessly. A spacious opening in the trombones served as a gentle call to attention, and a burst of energy inaugurated the movement proper. Honeck took matters at a brisk pace (with total performance time only just passing the 50-minute mark), and opted for a tauter structure in jettisoning the repeat of the exposition. The proportionally brief development was highlighted by fine solos from the principal winds, and in due course the trombones returned to herald a triumphant coda.

A sumptuous song without words made for a memorable slow movement, notable for the intensely lyrical solos in the oboe. Music of more urgency offered some contrast and initiated a gorgeous, flowing theme chiefly in the strings with guest concertmaster Alexi Kenney at the helm. There was breathless vigor in the scherzo, countered by a more songful trio, and the finale was yet another high-octane affair – while it began perhaps a notch too loud, this zealousness did little to detract from the symphony’s bold conclusion.

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Lorna McGhee, photo credit Takuyuki Saito

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.

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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).

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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!

Intimate Chopin and Liszt from Ádám György

Ádám György, piano
Rheinberger Chamber Hall
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 16, 2017

György: Improvisations on Hungarian folk songs, themes by Ádám György, and themes by Keith Jarrett
Chopin: Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1
Chopin: Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 6 No. 2
Chopin: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4
Liszt: Rigoletto Paraphrase, S434
Liszt: La campanella, No. 3 from Grandes études de Paganini, S141
Liszt: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots, No. 2 from Deux légendes, S175
Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31

Encore:
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, S244/2

After seeing pianist Ádám György give a memorable performance of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor at the 2017 American Liszt Society Festival this past spring, I have been eager to hear him in a full length recital. The opportunity for just that came Monday evening when the pianist stopped in Cleveland as part of a brief US recital tour, culminating in a Carnegie Hall performance this Sunday – which, by no coincidence, falls on Liszt’s birthday. The venue of choice was the intimate Rheinberger Chamber Hall at Severance Hall, an ideal setting for recitals and chamber music.

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Ádám György, photo credit adamgyorgy.com

Introduced as a “diplomat for Hungarian culture abroad”, György boldly opened the program with one of his own compositions, a 20 minute set of improvisations on source material as disparate as Hungarian folk songs, themes by Keith Jarrett, and themes by the pianist himself. It began almost impressionistically, unfolding at a glacial pace and contrasting the extreme ends of the piano’s registers. The work favored a rhapsodic ebb and flow over a taut structural cohesion; while it may have consequently meandered at times, the juxtapositions of modal folk music and the jazz-inflected Jarrett melodies were given with a remarkable fluidity.

Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1 followed attacca, offered as something of a pendant to the improvisations. Though perhaps a jarring interpretative choice, György’s reading of the nocturne left little to be desired. An ineffable melancholy characterized the primary theme which led to a stately chordal procession, and the concluding agitato section bordered on the ecstatic. Eschewing the standard concert practice of punctuating selections with stage exits, György remained at the keyboard for the duration, presenting the program in an unbroken arc. A pair of Chopin’s mazurkas followed, both contrasting wistfulness with a folksy charm and rhythmic snap.

Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase is based on the famous quartet from the namesake Verdi opera, and under György’s hands the theme was presented with a delicate elegance, increasingly complex and ornamented. While one would have preferred a bit more clarity in some of the octave leaps and rapid scalar runs, the cascading octaves that concluded showed György’s virtuosity at its finest. La campanella was a tour de force of pianistic acrobatics, the repeated notes high in the treble sounding as bell-like as the title suggests. György sailed through the fearsome trills with apparent ease, and the work built to a thunderous coda. The final Liszt selection on the printed program was the second of the two Légendes, namely St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots. A work of deep religious introspection, the rocking waves depicted in the bass made this imposing piece the evening’s emotional climax.

György turned attention back to Chopin one final time in the Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, and this commanding performance was filled with passion and drama. The modest but enthusiastic audience was indulged with a substantial encore, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, to end the evening on a quintessentially Hungarian note and in a blaze of pianistic brilliance.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra soar to tragic heights in Mahler’s Sixth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Tragic

The Cleveland Orchestra is pulling all the stops in opening their centennial season, with this week’s attention turned toward a monumental Mahler score in addition to Saturday night’s gala. Before the music began, Thursday’s performance saw the annual presentation of the Distinguished Service Award, this year given to Chair of the Board of Trustees Dennis W. LaBarre. Following that moment of celebration, Welser-Möst and the orchestra embarked on a journey through darkness with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, unique amongst the composer’s symphonic corpus in that it ends in unresolved tragedy.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
The opening movement was taken at a brisk tempo, and one could sense the immediate buildup of potential energy that would power the work’s unrelenting cataclysms. Terse, motivic cells yielded a pulsating march theme, punctuated by the shrillness of the winds. Another gesture was introduced that would recur throughout, namely the major triad collapsing into the minor, prescient of the tragic trajectory. Some contrast was to be had in the lushly flowing “Alma” theme, while the development offered a particularly striking moment with the celesta and offstage cowbells suggesting some distant, hallucinogenic dream of the Austrian countryside. Perhaps Mahler’s most classically-proportioned movement, the recapitulation brought to a triumphant close, though as was later evident, only deceptively so in this hollow victory.

There has long been contention regarding the ordering of the two inner movements. The critical edition places the scherzo ahead of the Andante, while Mahler changed his mind during rehearsals and opted to conduct the Andante first. Welser-Möst honored Mahler’s decision, not just with regards to the Sixth’s chronology, but in terms of tempo as well – as he remarked in the program notes, its 1906 premiere with the composer conducting spanned 77 minutes, and Thursday’s performance clocked in at that on the dot. The Andante is in the distant key of E flat major, a tritone apart from the A minor of the other movements, and indeed, it occupied a peaceful world far removed from the surrounding tumult. One was struck by the genial warmth of the clarinets, and in due course, gleaming solos in the cor anglais and horn.

The march theme from the first movement returned in the scherzo, this time mutated into the grotesque and exhibiting a manic energy. The percussion added a particular grimness, while the pair of trios provided some lighter moments, if only relatively speaking. Afendi Yusuf’s solo clarinet passages were filled with rhythmic swagger though perhaps a notch too loud, and answered by the uneasiness of the col legno strings. Otherworldly sounds in the celesta opened the finale, thus beginning the plunge into infinite darkness. A stentorian brass chorale of enormous power, again embodying the decay from major to minor, initiated the movement’s epic, monumental fight, albeit one that would ultimately end in futility. Moments with the apparent potential of victory were quickly snuffed out by the two crashing hammer blows, the second with even more finitude than the first, signifying the point of no return. Some tender moments in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein suggested the possibility of respite, but overtaken as if with inevitability by the hollow emptiness of the conclusion, an unmitigated tragedy after which Welser-Möst held the audience spellbound in reverential silence.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra – note the hammer in the back row, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Sublime Beethoven and primal Stravinsky from Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 28, 2017

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 (transc. for string orchestra by Welser-Möst)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Encore:
Wagner: Good Friday Spell, from Parsifal

After last weekend’s stellar revival performances of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, this week the Cleveland Orchestra turned attention toward purely orchestral music in scores of Beethoven and Stravinsky – a work from late in the career of the former and early in that of the latter, both uniquely revolutionary and iconoclastic. A crown jewel of this season’s offerings is the upcoming cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor served as a generous prelude, presented in a lush transcription for string orchestra by Welser-Möst himself. During the preconcert conservation with him and executive director André Gremillet, the conductor noted that Beethoven’s ethos often resonates with the values on which the United States was founded, and with regards to the late quartets, that they are “half-symphonic”, thus making the expansion to a larger ensemble a logical realization of the composer’s vision.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst’s transcription was fastidiously faithful to Beethoven’s original, with the thoughtful addition of the basses adding weight where appropriate in doubling the cello line an octave below, and imposingly aligned in the back row – a positioning preferred by the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble with which Welser-Möst is intimately familiar. The work’s nebulous, enigmatic opening gave way in due course to the heft of the movement proper, and for one accustomed to hearing it as a quartet, the sight and sound of so many players in precise unison was really quite astounding. The scherzo had the charm of a minuet, contrasted by a more rustic trio, its halcyon bliss interrupted by stormier interludes, bringing to mind the mercurial Schubert.

The heart of the quartet is surely the central and quite extensive “Heiliger Dankgesang”; its unassuming beginnings in the Lydian mode grew to a heartwrenchingly beautiful resound. A sprightly foil was to be found in the brief Alla marcia, effectively a bridge to the finale, with a solo passage at the end given to concertmaster William Preucil as a quasi-cadenza. The last movement was overflowing with nervous energy and angst, an affront to the string quartet’s classical origins and indeed an augur of Romanticism.

In the aforementioned preconcert talk, Welser-Möst touched upon his keenness to include watershed works in the orchestra’s centennial season, and The Rite of Spring certainly fits the bill (and the conductor noted that upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are in that pantheon as well). The impossibly high passage in the solo bassoon unleashed a performance of unrelenting virtuosity, from its cataclysmic, primal climaxes, to the strained moments of a world of sacrificial desolation, the latter particularly notable at the beginning of Part II. It was abundantly clear how deeply ingrained this music is in the orchestra’s DNA, having championed it for decades (think of their landmark 1969 recording with Boulez), yet I was struck by how Welser-Möst opted for crisp articulation and dry textures; while it boasted razor-sharp clarity, it lingered a step below the red-hot intensity other conductors might champion.

Nonetheless, the ovations that followed were richly deserved, and the audience was treated to a rarity: an encore on home turf. Welser-Möst introduced it as a “beautiful piece for a beautiful audience”, otherwise known as the “Good Friday Spell” from Wagner’s divine final opera, Parsifal. Newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf had a shining moment in the spotlight – a sign of good things to come – and after the ferocity of the Stravinsky, the encore allowed the evening to conclude in peaceful radiance.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra