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

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

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

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleveland 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.

31739802_10155868572646888_4595952092933259264_o
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.

31769513_10155868573021888_9183743563320524800_o
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.

31698889_10155868572566888_5241225140510916608_o
Davies, Welser-Möst, and Jacobs

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