Michail Jurowski makes belated US debut in blistering Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky

Cleveland Orchestra
Michail Jurowski, conductor
Vadim Gluzman, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 5, 2019

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
 Encore:
 Bach: Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 – Sarabande
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, The Year 1905

Last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts marked not only Michail Jurowski’s local debut, but – astonishingly for a 75-year-old with a long and distinguished career – his US debut. Good things come to those who wait, and given the level of playing, one could have easily mistook conductor and orchestra as seasoned collaborators. Adding to the occasion was Jurowski’s participation in a pre-concert interview along with violin soloist Vadim Gluzman, both offering fascinating insights. Gluzman spoke of his cherished instrument, a 1690 Stradivarius formerly played by Leopold Auer, the original dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – this is to say, this is the instrument for which the composer envisioned his now ubiquitous concerto. In deference to the violin’s provenance, Gluzman remarked on his preference for Auer’s edition of the work. Jurowski fondly recalled his first exposure to The Cleveland Orchestra while the latter was on tour to Moscow in 1965 under Szell. This performance he called one of the “most powerful feelings from live music” he’d ever experienced, and was thus particularly keen to stand in front of them as conductor. He further reminisced about his personal friendship with Shostakovich, with whom he played piano duets!

Pre-concert interview, left to right: moderator Cicilia Yudha, Michail Jurowski, Vadim Gluzman

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is certainly a well-known quantity, yet violinist and conductor managed to forge a fresh interpretation. A gentle, untroubled lyricism opened the work, so much at odds with the composer’s tormented life. Gluzman’s instrument was particularly rich in the low register, something Tchaikovsky took advantage of when writing the work, emanating a songful, burnished tone in this music of endless, organic development, with one theme flowing out of the next. The orchestral climax was given with vigor and swagger, and in the cadenza, one was struck by Gluzman’s crystal clear intonation of the stratospherically high notes and thorough command of his storied instrument – joined by flutist Joshua Smith in a particularly affecting moment. A choir of winds – a notch too loud to my ears – opened the central Canzonetta, and the violin sang with an ineffable melancholy, quite a contrast from the breakneck dance of the finale. Gluzman encored with the sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita, given with stately introspection.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is patently programmatic, recounting the horrific events of Bloody Sunday in graphic detail. The events – occurring one year before the composer’s birth and witnessed firsthand by his father – entailed the mass murder of peaceful demonstrators by the tsarist regime on a fateful Sunday in January 1905. The symphony was completed in 1957, and Jurowski suggested it was inspired by the Hungarian Revolution of the year prior which had some clear parallels – in other words, ever the subversive, Shostakovich was using historical events to comment upon the present. The work opened with the eerie and chilling motionlessness of a St. Petersburg January, a calm before the storm, aspiring to the monumental stasis of a Bruckner symphony. A plethora of folk songs in support of the revolutionary program was integral to the fabric of the work, first appearing in the brilliant trumpet of Michael Sachs.

A jarring contrast was had in the following movement, structurally serving as a scherzo but miles removed from a light-hearted affair. Matters seemed to crest to apparent triumph, only to devolve into music of shattering, shocking violence, with the snare depicting gunshots in gruesome recount, leading to a grinding fugue in the low strings of blistering contrapuntal ferocity. What followed was music of a broken world, never the same, this being the beginning of the end for the tsarists, and ghostly sounds of the celesta and muted trumpet finally brought matters to an inconclusive close. The third movement, titled “Eternal Memory”, was mourning of deepest lamentation. The strings initiated, followed ominously by the low brass. Matters burgeoned to an impassioned outcry, but in due course retreated to the somber beginnings. The closing “Tocsin” (“Alarm” – fittingly at this point a siren was heard from a passing emergency vehicle outside) jolted matters out of the shadows, startling in intensity. A march of relentless vigor proceeded, toppling over into a reminiscence of the quietude of the work’s distant opening, heightened by a plaintive English horn solo from Robert Walters. The coda added bells to the texture, material as impressive and blood rushing as anything Shostakovich wrote, yet after such bombast, Jurowski held the audience suspended in shocking silence.

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Apollo’s Fire in lively Vivaldi concertos – and a tribute to a deceased canary

Apollo’s Fire
Jeannette Sorrell, conductor
Jeffrey Strauss, baritone
Kathie Stewart, traverso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Cleveland Heights, OH
March 8, 2019

Vivaldi: Concerto in D for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings, RV 564
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Vivaldi: Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, RV 580 (from L’estro armonico, Op. 3)
Telemann: Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird, TWV 20:37
Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in D, Il gardellino, RV 428 (from Six Flute Concertos, Op. 10)
Vivaldi/Sorrell: La Folia, after Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63 (from Twelve Trio Sonatas, Op. 1)

Branded as “Three Duels and a Funeral”, Apollo’s Fire (fresh off their win at the Grammys) offered a generous program comprised of a trio of Vivaldi concertos along with a funereal oddity by Telemann, fleshed out with additional music by Bach and more Vivaldi. The first “duel” presented was Vivaldi’s Concerto in D for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings. Despite the evening’s moniker, these concertos were rather congenial affairs as far as duels are concerned, with the opening work particularly affecting in its consonant combination of soloists on both ends of the string spectrum (violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post, cellists René Schiffer and Rebecca Landell Reed), further encouraged by the crisp cohesiveness of the supporting ensemble. Novom led the central Largo with beautifully singing lines which Post duly imitated, while rapid fire playing amongst the four soloists made for a rousing finale.

Jeffrey Strauss and Apollo’s Fire in Telemann’s Canary Cantata, photo credit Apollo’s Fire

In her spoken introduction, Jeannette Sorrell referred to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 as the “most democratic piece in classical music”, owing to its equal treatment of all nine players. Matters were propelled forward with joyous energy, only to arrive at a harmonic stasis in the slow movement of only two chords, wherein Sorrell’s continuo acted as a ghostly recitative. The work closed with a driving theme, vigorously passed from instrument to another. Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins saw Novom and Post resume soloist duties along with Susanna Perry Gilmore and Carrie Krause. One was quite taken intricate interplay amongst the quartet during this comparatively sober work, not in the least during a striking moment when the orchestral accompaniment all but dropped out of the fold.

The evening’s centerpiece was a work of remarkable musical eccentricity, namely Telemann’s Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird. Written at the behest of a Hamburg patron whose pet canary fell victim to a hungry feline, the Canary Cantata retells just that over the course of its 17-minute duration, ultimately an ingenious blend of tragedy and comedy. Handling the vocal line (originally in German, presented here in Sorrell’s English translation) with verve and aplomb was baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who further brought the text to life via some choice props and acting under the direction of Christine McBurney – judiciously used to add comedy without gimmick. As detailed in an interview with Cleveland Classical, Strauss’ vitality was all the more laudable given his recent recovery from major heart surgery. Sighing strings opened the work in this music of very fine quality, such that it could easily be mistaken for that of a rather more serious subject matter. The aria “My dear Canary, sleep well tonight!” was genuinely moving, a lovely tribute to the protagonist’s avian friend. A genuine curiosity, expertly performed, and perhaps an inspiration for Alkan’s equally perplexing and similarly themed Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Papagallo from almost a century later.

This ornithological thread was continued in one further Vivaldi concerto, the Flute Concerto in D bearing the nickname “Il gardellino” (The Goldfinch). Principal flute Kathie Stewart delivered an obvious invocation of birdcalls in her limber and fluid playing, and a charming cantabile led to the fluttering finale. Vivaldi’s rendering of La Folia has become one of AF’s signature pieces; originally a trio sonata, the evening closed with Sorrell’s arrangement, recomposed as a concerto grosso. A commanding reading of the canonical chord progression gave way to a breathless tour de force, with some good-natured dueling between violinists Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe emblematic of the ensemble’s blistering virtuosity.

Apollo’s Fire violinists shed light on Biber’s Mystery Sonatas

Musicians from Apollo’s Fire:
Johanna Novom, violin
Adriane Post, violin
Karina Schmitz, violin
Carrie Krause, violin
William Simms, theorbo
Brian Kay, lute and guitar
René Schiffer, cello
Jeffrey Grossman, organ and harpsichord

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Cleveland Heights, OH
February 2, 2019

Biber: Selections from Sonatas on the Mysteries of the Rosary – 

Sonata No. 1 in D minor, The Annunciation
Sonata No. 4 in D minor, The Presentation of Jesus
Bach: Prelude in C minor, BWV 999
Sonata No. 6 in C minor, The Agony in the Garden
Sonata No. 7 in F major, The Scourging at the Pillar
Sonata No. 10 in G minor, The Crucifixion
Bach: Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 – Sarabande
Johann Kerll: Toccata No. 8 in G major
Sonata No. 11 in G major, The Resurrection
Sonata No. 12 in C major, The Ascension
David Kellner: Campanella in D major
Sonata No. 14 in D major, The Assumption of Our Lady
Kaspar Förster: Motet in G minor, Dulcis amor Jesu

One of the most perplexing and endlessly fascinating instrumental works of the Baroque, Heinrich Biber’s Sonatas on the Mysteries of the Rosary (variously know as simply the Mystery Sonatas or Rosary Sonatas) served as the focus of this weekend’s Apollo’s Fire concerts. The complete cycle consists of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo followed by a passacaglia for violin unaccompanied. Each of the fifteen sonatas evokes a scene from the Catholic Rosary, further divided into three sets of five, respectively, the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. Despite the moniker of sonata, each embody a markedly unique structure from one another, and most remarkably, employ a different tuning through extensive use of scordatura. Only the opening sonata and closing passacaglia are scored for standard tuning, adding to the technical – and logistical – challenges of performing the work.

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Tuning for Sonata No. 11, photo credit Wikipedia

Eight of the fifteen sonatas were programmed, with four violinists each responsible for two. The instrumentation for the continuo is open to interpretation; the present performances opted for theorbo, lute, cello, keyboard, and various combinations thereof. Sonata No. 1 (“The Annunciation”) featured associate concertmaster Adriane Post. Beginning contemplative and rhapsodic, its centerpiece was a graceful aria which lent itself to elegant variations. Karina Schmitz offered sweeping power and a wide-ranging color palette to No. 4 (“The Presentation of Jesus”), a single-movement chaconne. At various intervals, solo works by other composers were offered as “meditations”, affording each of the continuo players a moment in the spotlight. The first such was lutenist Brian Kay in a prelude by Bach, a meditative work of understatement to which Kay offered deft control of the contrapuntal voices.

Co-concertmaster Johanna Novom was soloist in the dark No. 6 (“The Agony in the Garden”), digging into the depths of her instrument in this lament. No. 7, given by Carrie Krause, began with an unassuming allemande in congenial counterpoint with the organ, almost defiantly peaceful given its subject matter (“The Scourging at the Pillar”). A sarabande followed with dramatic flourishes – rather uncharacteristic of the form – and a striking central section wherein motion was all but suspended. Post offered a gripping reading of No. 10 (“The Crucifixion”), with the sharp snap of dotted rhythms eerily suggested the nails going in; a set of variations followed, impressive for the rapid passagework. Cellist René Schiffer closed the first half with a Bach sarabande, stately in its directness.

To open the final section – The Glorious Mysteries – was keyboardist Jeffrey Grossman (who was also on hand for an informative pre-concert lecture) in the Toccata No. 8 by Johann Kerll – a work of bright and brilliant virtuosity that presaged the light to come. Sonata No. 11 (“The Resurrection”) brought back Novom, and featured perhaps the most striking tuning of all – two Gs an octave apart, and two Ds also spaced by an octave, with the two middle strings forming a cross over the bridge for obvious symbolism (see picture above). The heart of the sonata was a chorale of resonant richness, at one point presented in octaves, readily achieved via the aforementioned tuning. Krause gave No. 12 (“The Ascension”) a commanding Intrada, contrasted by the joyful dance suite followed. William Simms presented David Kellner’s Campanella on the lute, a piece of perpetual arpeggiated figures. Schmitz concluded the Biber offerings with No. 14 (“The Assumption of Our Lady”), a rollicking final selection, especially in the concluding gigue. As a pendant to the Biber, the eight musicians at last joined forces simultaneously in an instrumental arrangement of a motet by Kaspar Förster – a moving blend of pathos and joy.

Metzmacher and Tetzlaff in coloristic evocation of fin de siècle Vienna

Cleveland Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 27, 2018

Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1
Berg: Violin Concerto
 Encore:
 Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 – Largo
Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5

Vienna at the turn of the 20th-century was the site of seismic changes in culture, with the birth of the modern, wary consciousness brought on by the likes of Freud, Klimt, and Schnitzler – and the revolutions in music were no less consequential. Branded as the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and his disciples – principally Berg and Webern – upended the common practice period harmony that had been foundational to Western music for centuries. The Cleveland Orchestra’s program this week, with guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher at the helm, included a work from each of the triptych of iconoclastic Viennese composers for a noticeably underpopulated but raptly attentive Severance Hall.

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Ingo Metzmacher, photo credit Opera Musica

Webern’s Passacaglia served as beguiling opener. Dubbed his opus 1, it was certainly not his inaugural work, but the first major composition to result from his studies with Schoenberg. An eight bar bassline opened, suggesting not a link to not just the form’s Baroque forebears, but to the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (and it should be remembered that Schoenberg, whose radicalism was rooted in a keen sense of history, would later write an essay provocatively titled “Brahms the Progressive”). The orchestra’s gift for razor-sharp clarity and precision paid its dividends amply in this work, encouraged by Metzmacher’s guidance even without a utilizing a baton. Even in this rather academic form, the music was of eerie beauty, building to a supercharged climax only to evaporate at the end.

While the opening and closing selections were from their respective composers’ early years, hanging on to the last embers of tonality, Berg’s Violin Concerto was a work of full maturity and one of the crowning achievements of twelve-tone serialism. Matters began with unassuming arpeggios, first in the harp, then in Christian Tetzlaff’s solo violin – despite its serialist rigor, the work ingeniously never ventured far from an oblique invocation of tonality (and Clevelanders will likely be amused by Robert Conrad’s hilarious twelve-tone “infomercial”, wherein the not-so-ostentatious virtuosity of the Berg concerto is duly lampooned). Tetzlaff’s long-bowed playing emanated a biting lyricism, contrasted by the more jocular interpolation of a Carinthian folk song. The violinist was deftly balanced against the richly colored orchestral tapestry, playing with an exacting intensity.

A ferocious unease began the second movement, later countered by the wistful reminiscence of another tonal source, the Lutheran chorale Es ist genug, almost monastic in presentation – and fitting its elegiac subtitle “to the memory of an angel”, referencing the tragic death of Manon Gropious. In the final moments, the violin solo left the orchestra behind to be among the angels in its haunting close. Tetzlaff offered an encore in the Largo from Bach’s third sonata for unaccompanied violin, touchingly dedicating it to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh in response to the horrific events earlier in the day. A poignant performance of deeply felt beauty, and a much-needed moment of solace.

The remainder of the evening was devoted to Schoenberg’s extensive Pelleas und Mellisande. A far cry from the language with which Schoenberg would make waves, the work is lush and hyper-Romantic (though not quite to the excess of the earlier Gurre-Lieder). A tone poem spanning a continuous arc of over 40 minutes, its rich, pictorial detailing sounded very much akin to the contemporaneous works of Strauss (who convinced Schoenberg to take on Pelleas as a subject matter, concurrent with Debussy’s opera – which TCO performed to acclaim not long ago). As delineated in the program books, the work can also be conceived of as following a four movement symphonic structure, but I wasn’t convinced those demarcations were particularly useful.

Wagnerian leitmotifs depicting the characters were introduced at the onset, uneasily commingling in foretelling an unhappy fate. The music swelled in passionate ebb and flow with top-drawer orchestral playing, though I was especially struck by the lush clarinet solos of Afendi Yusuf. Jestful music depicted the symbolic fountain scene, and functioned as a scherzo of sorts (and somewhat reminiscent of “Klaus-Narr” from the Gurre-Lieder), and there was a fine viola solo from principal Wesley Collins. A love scene followed, surely taking cue from Act II of Tristan – a divine serenity only to be caustically interrupted by Golaud. Mellisande’s death was marked by a funereal downward procession, in what was some of the work’s most affecting music. The epilogue began with a stately lyricism, but ultimately the mysteries propounded the unknowing central to Maeterlinck’s symbolist fantasy – different here than the perfumes of Debussy, but nonetheless shrouded in ambiguity.

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Christian Tetzlaff, photo credit Giorgia Bertazzi

Cleveland Orchestra explores “divine ecstasy” in eclectic program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Davies, Welser-Möst, and Jacobs

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

 

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.

Organ
Severance Hall, Norton Memorial Organ front and center