Musical discoveries abound in Bychkov’s Cleveland Orchestra program

Cleveland Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Katia Labèque, piano
Marielle Labèque, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 9, 2019

Glanert: Weites Land, Musik mit Brahms
Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos, Op. 88a
 Encore:
 Ravel: Le jardin féerique, from Ma mère l’Oye
Smetana: Vyšehrad, Vltava, and Šárka from Má vlast

The Cleveland Orchestra certainly has a knack for presenting programs that resist the tried-and-true, and Thursday’s concert was no exception, another triumph of imaginative programming with both works on the first half receiving their inaugural performances from this ensemble. Guest conductor Semyon Bychkov has championed the works of contemporary composer Detlev Glanert, and opened the evening with the US premiere of the 2013 work Weites Land. Roughly translating to English as Wide Open Land, the work also bears the subtitle Musik mit Brahms. Like Brahms, Glanert hails from Hamburg, and the work of the elder composer has often served as his guiding lighthere quite patently so, with the arching primary theme of the Fourth Symphony serving as the present work’s structural backbone. An obvious invocation of the symphony opened, familiar for a fleeting moment, then morphing into dissipated modernity. The Brahms theme served as guideposts at various intervals, while the wide, open spaces between were filled with colorfully dissonant filigree, often unexpected yet still approachable, and ultimately a brief Brahmsian gesture brought matters to a close.

A true rarity followed in the Concerto for Two Pianos by Max Bruch, featuring the acclaimed Labèque sisters (who opted for the Bruch in favor of the initially programmed work for the same forces by Martinů). Bruch completed the work in 1915, near the tail end of his career, in fact with another sibling duo in mind, Rose and Ottilie Sutro. To the composer’s dismay, the dedicatees performed the work in a vastly simplified version, and Bruch’s original version didn’t surface to the public until the 1970s. Bruch’s intentions were certainly respected and challenges easily surmounted Thursday evening; between the two pianists, the opening theme was presented in eight octaves, a commanding beginning saturated in solemnity. An exacting fugue followed, beginning in the pianos, and blossoming to great power when the orchestra joined.

Bychkov and the Labèque sisters’ 1993 recording of the Bruch concerto

A slow introduction marked the next movement, with sweeping arpeggios on the keyboards and gentle touches in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein. The movement proper was of scherzo-like playfulness, contrasted by the lyrical beauty of the succeeding. The octave theme returned in the finale, a passionate last vestige of German Romanticism (indeed, the four movement structure certainly pointed towards the Brahms concertos as inspiration). A work which soloists and conductor clearly believe in (having recorded it some years ago), though to my ears not the most melodically rewarding. The duo encored with the final segment of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye – gorgeous playing which said more in those few minutes than in Bruch’s twenty-five.

Bychkov currently serves as music director of the Czech Philharmonic, and accordingly was able to offer penetrating insights to the first three selections of Smetana’s Má vlast. A work central to Czech musical culture, it inaugurates the storied Prague Spring International Music Festival every year on May 12, the anniversary of the composer’s death – coming just days after the present performance. Vyšehrad opened with a pair of harps, lush and rhapsodic, to set the stage for the epic tale of the namesake fortress. The Vyšehrad theme – which reappears throughout the cycle – was first sounded by the horns, warm and mellow. The vicissitudes of the castle through history were depicted, always majestic in the end.

By far the most recognizable of the six tone poems, Vltava began with liquescent flutes in evocation of the confluence of the springs that form the titular river. Matters swelled to a richly lyrical theme, arching, aching, and the picturesque journey of the river was painted in delirious detail. Most memorable was the “night music”, fantastical and sublime, as well as the appearance of the Vyšehrad theme when the river snaked its way through Prague, displaying the full splendor of the Cleveland brass. The ferocity with which Šárka opened portended the darkly murderous tale to come. Folk-inflected material and the lambent clarinet of Afendi Yusuf offered some momentary respite, yet the music inexorably culminated in a violent, gruesome end. One’s appetite was certainly whetted for more Smetana – as noted in the program books, the orchestra hasn’t performed Má vlast complete since 1976, so surely it is high time for a traversal of the full cycle!

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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.

US premiere of Deutsch’s Okeanos makes strong impression

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 14, 2019

Haydn: Symphony No. 34 in D minor, Hob. I:34
Deutsch: Okeanos
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Prior to The Cleveland Orchestra’s impending and extensive tour of China, Franz Welser-Möst is back in town for a pair of programs, the first of which was centered on Cleveland’s introduction to the tenth Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, Bernd Richard Deutsch. Also hailing from Welser-Möst’s native Austria, Deutsch is representative of what is sometimes referred to as the Third Viennese School, a loose amalgamation of composers whose music has been championed by the contemporary music ensemble Klangforum Wien.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Paul Jacobs in Okeanos. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The work Deutsch made his calling card was Okeanos, a nearly 30-minute canvas for organ and orchestra dating from 2014-15, and inspired by the titular Greek personification of the oceans. Prefacing the performance, Deutsch and organist Paul Jacobs were on hand for a fascinating preconcert discussion (although I did wish that moderator Caroline Oltmanns had been gracious enough to give the two more airtime). Okeanos is conceived in four movements, each representing the fundamental elements, respectively, water, air, earth, and fire. The work began almost indeterminately, with tremolos obscuring fragments of themes, and the organ so wrapped into the fabric of the orchestra as to be hardly discernible. The movement soon grew far more animated, building to a fluid gravitas, with the organ powerfully prominent in music of cosmic visceral impact – yet the movement ended in no more than a whisper.

“Air” opened with rapid fluttering in the organ along with a wind machine used to obvious effect. Colorful glissandi on the organ were imitated by the harp and celesta. “Earth” was a more glacial affair, filled with otherworldly timbres usually emanating from the percussion battery, as vast and diverse as one could imagine. “Fire” was of rapid virtuosity and quite ferocious playing, emphasizing the rhythmic primacy of the percussion. Further striking effects were achieved through muted trombones; at movement’s end the texture dug down into the depths of the organ, ending on a sustained chord at quadruple forte – an imposing effect to be sure. Deutsch noted that the structure of the work was determined by the golden ratio – a thought-provoking compositional approach with antecedents in Debussy and elsewhere, though certainly not apparent on first hearing. As part of his fellowship, Deutsch has been commissioned to write a new work for the orchestra, to be performed at the end of next season (May 2020) – I look forward to music that lies ahead.

The evening began with the first Cleveland Orchestra performances of a lesser-known Haydn symphony, No. 34 in D minor. The first of the composer’s to be cast in the minor, it served as an incubator for the series of Sturm und Drang symphonies that would soon follow. Haydn quite surprisingly begins with the slow movement – what initially sounds like merely an introduction turns out to be a symphonic edifice nearly as long as the remaining movements combined. A lament in the strings was marked by the clarity of the inner voices in this statement of genuine expressive depth. After the weighty beginnings, the minor was all but forgotten and matters proceeded wholly unperturbed. The sudden high spirits of the second movement were further encouraged by the courtly minuet with lovely woodwind triplets during its trio. And as is often the case with Haydn’s whirlwind finales, one only wished it wasn’t so brief.

Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Fifth Symphony completed the program in lush Romanticism. A plaintive presentation of the fate motive in the clarinets opened the work to chilling effect, eventually coalescing as an energetic march, gathering great strength in the face of fate and brimming with endlessly flowing melody. Welser-Möst took matters at a startlingly brisk tempo – while I applaud his resolve to not sentimentalize, I would have preferred the music to breathe a bit more. Low strings of deep emotion marked the slow movement, a backdrop for the sumptuous horn solo, delicately interjected by Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet. While Welser-Möst might not have probed as deep as some, the result was nonetheless long, flowing lines of rapturous beauty. The tragic obsessions of the first two movements were left behind in the lilting Valse, decorated by mercurial strings. The fate motive resurfaced, suddenly benign, setting the stage for the finale wherein matters were miraculously morphed to the triumphant.

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The Cleveland Orchestra performs Okeanos. Note the percussion battery and muted brass.

Roth makes Cleveland Orchestra debut in brilliant Parisian program

Cleveland Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth, conductor
Javier Perianes, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 28, 2019

Debussy: Rêve, from Première Suite d’Orchestre (orch. Manoury)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
 Encore:
 Falla: Danza ritual del fuego, from El amor brujo
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 version)

An unexpected artist cancellation had the ancillary effect of morphing François-Xavier Roth’ Cleveland Orchestra debut program into a decidedly Parisian affair. Due to illness, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja was obliged to cancel her scheduled performance of Peter Eötvös’ Seven, a violin concerto written in memoriam the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia – hopefully a work which can be programmed again in a future season. Spanish pianist Javier Perianes was on hand for the Ravel piano concerto instead, neatly complemented by works of Debussy and Stravinsky. The program change did little to derail Roth’s auspicious debut, a colorful portrait of Parisian musical life as the 19th-century gave way to the twentieth, and something of a pendant to Ingo Metzmacher’s program earlier in the season comprised of works of the same time period from Vienna.

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François-Xavier Roth, photo credit Holger Talinski

Debussy catalogues had long indicated the existence of a Première Suite d’Orchestre dating from his student days, but it was assumed to be lost until as recently as 2008 when the score surfaced in New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library. Two extant versions of the four-movement suite were unearthed: a version for two pianos and a full orchestral score. The latter, however, was missing the third movement (Rêve) which was in due course orchestrated from the piano version by Philippe Manoury. While one might have wished for the entire suite to be performed, Rêve made for a fine opening selection as a standalone work. String tremolos and bubbling winds showed the present piece to be a clear precursor to La mer despite its youthful ambitions, with a lyrical theme (especially prominent in the oboe) taking its cue from the Romanticism of Debussy’s predecessors. An attractive piece – and a US premiere – with orchestration remarkably faithful to Debussy’s palette.

Credit is due to the orchestra administration to booking a first-class substitute in Perianes at short notice. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major was a vehicle well-suited to the pianist and a welcome addition to the evening (and parenthetically, Ravel’s other piano concerto, for left hand alone, was performed here almost exactly a year ago). Its striking whip crack opening was answered by a prominent piccolo, glittering glissandi on the keyboard, and ebullient trumpet, giving way to a bluesy, quasi-improvisatory theme in the piano. A wondrous texture from the harp led to the cadenza, bringing Perianes’ formidable technique in the spotlight. The Adagio assai opened sans orchestra, a heart-wrenchingly beautiful nocturne somewhat reminiscent of Satie’s Gymnopédies, made all the more affecting by the pianist’s lyrical phrasing and touch. A lovely flute passage ushered in the rest of the orchestra. Matters grew more impassioned, only to recede to delicate filigree in the piano in dialogue with the English horn. The finale was a wild toccata of bright colors and bursts of jazz, inevitably leading to demands for an encore. Perianes obliged in a solo transcription of Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, with a slithery main theme growing to staggering virtuosity.

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Javier Perianes, photo credit Igor Studio

Stravinsky’s Petrushka, written for the Paris-based Ballets Russes in 1911, was presented in its 1947 revision which refined and clarified the orchestration. “The Shrovetide Fair” was awash with color, immediately pulling the audience in to a bustling street scene, with busy fragments of themes quickly shifting focus from one character to the next. The vigorous “Russian Dance” was a further highpoint, later reoccurring prominently in the piano. Piquant bitonalities, first appearing in the clarinets, displayed in no uncertain terms the conflicted duality of the titular puppet, while a fine trumpet solo from Michael Sachs offered some impish, folksy charm. The final scene returned to the opening fair at evening with textures even denser than as before. Shrill clarinets added to the dizzying array of colors, ominously predicting the puppet’s eventual death with the bitonal theme having the last word – now distant and disembodied, as if the post-mortem puppet was in ghostly dialogue with himself.

Ohlsson brings Busoni behemoth back to Cleveland

Cleveland Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 7, 2019

Haydn: Symphony No. 100 in G major, Hob. I:100, Military
Busoni: Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were anything but routine and truly one for the books, featuring a rarely-heard epic: Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto, an Olympian creation spanning the continuum of over 70 minutes, cast in five movements with the last including a male chorus. At the podium was former assistant conductor Alan Gilbert in his only stateside appearances this season. Before plunging into the unforgiving waters of the Busoni, the orchestra offered a delectable amuse-bouche in Haydn’s “Military” symphony.

A graceful classicism imbued the quintessentially Haydnesque slow introduction, with deftly ornamented strings. The movement proper was given with joie de vivre, though Gilbert didn’t shy away from giving matters ample gravitas where necessary: while seemingly a trifle in the wake of the Busoni, it proved to be far more than a mere featherweight. The Allegretto began unassumingly with some particularly lovely playing in the winds, while a boisterous splash of color against the pearly white classicism was achieved through the sudden introduction of cymbals, triangle, and bass drum, earning this symphony its moniker. Thought of as “Turkish” sounds with the Austro-Turkish War being in recent memory, these instruments were used to similar effect by Mozart and Beethoven; the present work’s martial feeling was further enhanced by a series of bugle calls. By comparison, the ensuing minuet was decidedly Old World, with a trio of simple charm. The finale was of frenetic energy and included a brief return of the colorful percussion.

There’s some historical context necessary in appreciating the magnitude of the Busoni performance. An absolute marathon for the soloist, it makes superhuman technical demands virtually without respite, and thus only a handful of pianists have the stamina to approach such a work. The Cleveland Orchestra first traversed the concerto in 1966 with Italian pianist Pietro Scarpini and George Szell conducting (an archive recording can be heard here), and the Cleveland performances were followed by a tour date in New York. In the audience of the Carnegie Hall performance was an eighteen-year-old Garrick Ohlsson who later that year would win the Busoni International Piano Competition. Fast-forward to 1989, and Ohlsson was the soloist in TCO’s next encounter with the work, this time under the baton of Christoph von Dohnányi. A New York performance again took place (along with Boston), as well as a recording session, the fruits of which continue to serve as a benchmark. This weekend’s two performances thus commemorated a remarkable anniversary, with Ohlsson, now 70, returning to the keyboard almost 30 years to the day of the recording (February 4, 1989).

Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. Garrick Ohlsson and Alan Gilbert, center.

The opening Prologo for orchestra alone initiated matters with lush, hyper-Romantic strings; though written in 1904 the work’s musical language was firmly rooted in the previous century, predating Busoni’s more astringent modernism. Winds and brass were introduced in stately fashion, with the piano’s entrance at the Introito being one of commanding chords thunderously traversing the keyboard. Rarely will one hear a Steinway played with such leonine power, with Ohlsson’s effusions sailing above the orchestra and through the depths of the hall – and impressively, he had the whole score committed to memory. While generally a movement of solemnity, there were occasional hints of the composer’s Italian heritage, of central importance in the work’s even-numbered movements. The following Pezzo giocoso was just that, beginning with rapid, fantastical material leading to a dizzying folk theme. It’s a movement that for me brings to mind the analogous one from Brahms’ second piano concerto, it too being a work of enormous weight, and like Brahms, Busoni’s piano writing is often subsumed into the dense texture of the orchestra when not front and center. Afendi Yusuf offered a languorous clarinet passage, and the folk theme appeared again in the piano atop rumbling tremolos in the bass. Boisterous as the movement was, it faded away in resolution.

The central Pezzo serioso is the heart of the work, its twenty minutes further divided into three sections with an introduction preceding. The low strings emanated a somber, looming darkness, as well as a contrapuntal severity that evidenced the specter of Bach, Busoni’s greatest idol. The piano floated above the strings, almost as a nocturne, and a solemn brass chorale also found an answer from the keyboard. Powerful rolling chords marked the Prima pars, while the extensive Altera pars erupted into a storm worthy of Mahler. Indeed, had Mahler written a piano concerto, this all-encompassing vision of Busoni leaves a clue to what perhaps could have been. The bright Italian sun broke through in the penultimate movement, All’Italiana, with bubbling winds further colored by tambourine. The wild tarantella was given with a joyous abandon, almost boiling over to a breaking point before the massive cadenza, with Ohlsson not flagging in intensity even an hour in.

The concluding Cantico brought forth the men’s chorus who rose to their feet at the cadenza’s conclusion (although it should be noted that Busoni desired for the chorus to not be visible to the audience). The notion of including a chorus within a piano concerto certainly contravenes convention, save for a few odd precedents – most notably, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, as well as all but forgotten examples from Daniel Steibelt and Henri Herz. In scoring for male voices, one also suspects Busoni looked towards the finale of Liszt’s Faust Symphony as a guiding light. A mystical atmosphere pervaded the movement’s beginnings to set the stage for the monastic entry of the chorus, at which point Ohlsson was afforded a well-earned relief, albeit brief. The six-part choral writing yielded some striking harmonies, in the service of a text by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger rendered in German. Excerpted from the poet’s “Aladdin”, the text in question is a hymn to Allah, yet much like Mahler’s texts of religious inspiration, it transcends one particular ethos. Upon conclusion of the text, the piano and full orchestra were rallied once again for the coda, magnificent and triumphant. A remarkable achievement, not to be soon forgotten.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra score another operatic success in Ariadne auf Naxos

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 13, 2019

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60

Tamara Wilson, soprano (Ariadne/Diva)
Andreas Schager, tenor (Bacchus/Tenor)
Daniela Fally, soprano (Zerbinetta)
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano (Composer)
Wolfgang Brendel, speaking role (Major-Domo)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone (Music Master)
Jonas Hacker, tenor (Dance Master)
Julie Mathevet, soprano (Naiad)
Daryl Freedman, mezzo-soprano (Dryad)
Ying Fang, soprano (Echo)
Ludwig Mittelhammer, baritone (Harlequin)
James Kryshak, tenor (Scaramuccio)
Anthony Schneider, bass (Trufffaldino)
Miles Mykkanen, tenor (Brighella)

Frederic Wake-Walker, director
Alexander V. Nichols, lighting, projection, and set design
Dominic Robertson & Lottie Bowater, collage, animation, and video content design
Jason Southgate, costume design
Mallory Pace, hair and makeup design

In what has become an essential part of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall season, music director Franz Welser-Möst led his ensemble in a staged opera production, this season turning attention towards Richard Strauss in Ariadne auf Naxos. A wholly unique work in the operatic canon, Ariadne is preceded by a prologue wherein a cast of characters plan and prepare an evening’s musical program, debating whether it should be serious art or comedic entertainment, and what follows is the resultant product – effectively, an opera with an opera. The new production was designed by Frederic Wake-Walker, who made much of Severance’s small stage and deftly incorporated motifs of the hall into his design.

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The ensemble of Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Welser-Möst eschewed the usual conductor entrance, with the prologue opening practically in medias res with conductor and orchestra in casual dress as perhaps in the middle of a rehearsal: the musicians thus became characters themselves. The instrumental introduction evidenced the finely-tuned Strauss playing of this ensemble. Strauss scored it for the rather modest force of about 35, although owing to the composer’s mastery of orchestration it often sounded as much more. While the scoring was thinner in the winds – particularly given what one might expect for Strauss – it was fleshed out by three keyboard instruments (piano, harmonium, celeste), and the clear textures allowed for the solos of the Cleveland principals to be rendered in sharper focus – notable were passages from the flute, clarinet, oboe, cello, and concertmaster Peter Otto.

As the Major Domo, Wolfgang Brendel was both imposing and avuncular in his spoken role (the character purportedly being tone deaf), explaining to the Composer that the latter’s opera would coincide with a performance by a comedy troupe, setting up the prologue’s central conflict. Dressed in the glam of a rock star, Kate Lindsey brought enormous vigor and defiance to the firebrand Composer, scored for mezzo to portray his youth, which involved an artistic idealism he hardly wanted to yield to comedians. As the Prima Donna (and slated to play title role in the Composer’s opera), soprano Tamara Wilson captured the essence of the stereotypical diva (and incidentally, Wilson is to reprise the role with Welser-Möst at La Scala later this season). When it was announced an inflexibly scheduled fireworks display would necessitate the opera and the comedy to be performed simultaneously, the singers and the comics exchanged ideas in a humorous mashup of the comical and the serious.

After the prologue’s minimalist staging, Severance Hall underwent a miraculous transformation to host the opera proper. The orchestra was lowered down to the pit, and a curtain draped around the stage’s perimeter served as a canvas for a nearly continuous stream of video projection. In adoration of the production’s venue, patterns reflective of the Severance ceiling were displayed on the curtain, and Ariadne’s dress would invoke the same pattern. While I was impressed with the production being truly made for Cleveland, perhaps the sight lines of the hall could have further been considered during design – particularly in the prologue, some of the action was obscured from my vantage point on the side of the balcony.

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Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Following another finely-played orchestral prelude, the celestial voices of the three nymphs were heard from above, reaching out to Wilson now refashioned as Ariadne. In a nod towards (somewhat) contemporaneous comedy, the comedians were costumed as the four Marx Brothers (is there any evidence that Strauss ever saw a Marx Brothers film?!). Additionally, clips from various comedies were projected, including scenes of Charlie Chaplin during the Harlequin’s aria, Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen. Ludwig Mittelhammer gave a deeply lyrical and affecting reading of the Harlequin, and during his excellent pre-concert lecture, Prof. Bryan Gilliam observed that the aria in question bears a more than passing resemblance to the first movement theme from Mozart’s piano sonata K331 – a composer who Strauss profoundly admired.

The second half’s centerpiece, Zerbinetta’s extensive Großmächtige Prinzessin, saw Daniela Fally – donning a flapper dress – shining brilliantly in this coloratura tour de force. The ensemble piece Töne, töne, süße Stimme, given by the nymphs in concert with Ariadne, was of sublime beauty as well as another musical homage – in this case, to Schubert (the Wiegenlied, D498). Tenor Andreas Schager entered as Bacchus, stretching to the extremities of his vocal range with great power but always lyrical first and foremost. A transcendent transformation occurred on stage with the darkened hall becoming filled with light as Ariadne gave thought to life with Bacchus outside her cave on the titular Naxos, perhaps alluding to the quest for enlightenment in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Bacchus and Ariadne closed with a duet of luscious lyricism: in the wake of the earlier debates of high art vs. populism, the sublime firmly had the final word.

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Tamara Wilson (Ariadne) and Andreas Schager (Bacchus) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

 

Vivaldi features prominently on Cleveland Orchestra’s Thanksgiving menu

Cleveland Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Peter Otto, violin
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 23, 2018

Vivaldi: Le quattro stagioni
Mozart: Ballet Music for Idomeneo, K367 – Chaconne
Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G major, Hob. I:94, Surprise

The Cleveland Orchestra’s Thanksgiving weekend concerts were an ample serving of comfort food, with the first half devoted to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – a follow up of sorts to last season’s traversal of another seasonal quadriptych, namely Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons. Initially published as part of the composer’s The Contest Between Harmony and Invention (Op. 8), The Four Seasons comprise the first four and certainly best known selections. These concerts were not without some controversy, however, as the violin soloist was originally slated to be the ousted William Preucil (whom I saw perform the work on this stage back in February 2007, coincidentally also under the baton of McGegan). First associate concertmaster Peter Otto was on hand to more than capably take the reins.

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Peter Otto, all photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The immediately familiar strains of Spring featured Otto in some sprightly interplay with second violin chair Stephen Rose. Some minor intonation issues were apparent initially but soon resolved. The Largo was of long-bowed repose while the closing was a joyous dance filled with rapid passagework. A minor-key haze marked Summer, taking flight in due course in evidence of the orchestra’s tight chemistry under McGegan’s expert direction from the harpsichord. A remarkable expressiveness was achieved in the finale, while the fire returned in the breathless finale.

Autumn boasted the rustic charm of the harvest, given with an authentic rhythmic snap. An affecting melody played over undulating arpeggios in the harpsichord made the Adagio molto a standout, while the closing Allegro was – appropriately – a joyful Thanksgiving. Winter introduced dissonances that must have been shocking to audiences in Vivaldi’s day; the songful Largo, however, was enough to warm even the coldest of winter days.

The Viennese classicism of Haydn and Mozart rounded off the program. Mozart’s opera Idomeneo is thought of as his first fully mature operatic foray. The composer produced a fine suite of ballet music to accompany the work as per the French tradition, likely owing to the French origins of the original libretto. McGegan offered the opening chaconne; although satisfying I would have preferred inclusion of the modest remainder of the ballet score. Apparent from the declamatory opening onward was the immediate charm of a Mozart opera, here with the intimacy of communication fostered through the reduced-sized orchestra in playing of sparkling transparency and clarity.

Last on the menu was Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G major, known by its memorable moniker Surprise. A graceful and leisurely introduction set the stage for the vigor of the movement proper. Under McGegan, the orchestra operated as a single organism, achieving a wide range of expression in the development even within classical proportions. The Andante is what earned the work its nickname, full of tongue-in-cheek wit, and McGegan maximized the dynamic contrasts to further its irresistible appeal. A fine oboe solo from Jeffrey Rathbun counted as another highlight; the penultimate movement carried the swagger of an Old World minuet while the finale was a whirlwind of effervescence – one only wished it could have lasted longer.

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Peter Otto and Nicholas McGegan

 

Altinoglu leads Cleveland Orchestra in Ravel, Debussy, and Pintscher

Alain Altinoglu, conductor
Joshua Smith, flute
Cleveland Orchestra
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 8, 2018

Debussy: Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande (arr. Altinoglu)
Pintscher: Transir
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Boléro

Following last week’s podium appearance from Matthias Pintscher, this week’s Cleveland Orchestra programs afforded the opportunity to hear from Pintscher as composer albeit under the capable baton of Alain Altinoglu. The work in question was Transir, a 2006 composition for flute and chamber orchestra, originally conceived for Emmanuel Pahud, principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic. Last month, principal cello was Mark Kosower was afforded a concerto appearance; the present program passed the reins to another distinguished principal, namely Joshua Smith who has served as principal flute since 1990, when he was appointed at a mere twenty years old.

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Joshua Smith, Alain Altinoglu, and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Thursday’s performance counted as the American premiere of Transir. The French title suggests a state of paralysis due to cold, and it’s a work that certainly occupies a rarefied soundworld and atmosphere. In the spirit of the Debussy that preceded it, Pintscher favored a language that gave primacy to suggestion over directness. Unfamiliar – and quite unsettling – timbres were present without respite from the opening, and the score required Smith to engage in extended techniques to the extreme, including breathy sounds in the high register scarcely recognizable as emanating from a flute. Smith was supported by a chamber-sized orchestra which in spite of its modest dimensions included a substantial percussion section, offering garish contrasts. Sustained soprano notes in the violins were another important part of the fabric, in a sense presenting the melody one would think the flute should be doing in a more traditional piece. While I applaud The Cleveland Orchestra’s commitment to programming contemporary works – and Smith’s far-reaching virtuosity – I found the present work unconvincing, a bizarre though intriguing study in extended technique, novel timbres, and intense concentration.

Opening the evening was a twenty-minute suite drawn by Altinoglu himself from Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande – a fitting follow-up to TCO’s reading of Schoenberg’s work on the same subject a few weeks prior. The aura was immediately enigmatic with the orchestra offering a warm tone yet never fully disclosing. Altinoglu’s suite was chiefly comprised of the opera’s orchestral interludes, preserving much fine music while necessarily omitting much more. A solo from the concertmaster was of deep yearning, and flourishes in the harps were painted with impressionistic watercolors. The music grew in urgency only to ultimately shy away to a serene ending, tragic yet obfuscated.

Following the somewhat uneven first half was a generous sampling of Ravel, bringing to mind last season’s all-Ravel evening (which while not including a work by Pintscher, was conducted by Pintscher) – although the playing on Thursday, alluring as it was, rather fell short of the inspired level witnessed then. A descending four-note motif opened Rapsodie espagnole, serving as a binding element for the work as a whole. The hazy mystery of the night gave way to the comparatively livelier Malagueña, picking up energy but still generally subdued, and heightened by an extended English horn solo from Robert Walters. Initially written well before the rest of the work, the Habanera that followed was dreamy and sultry before daybreak came suddenly in the brilliant Feria. Fluid playing in the winds set the stage for the conclusion of brassy and percussive exuberance.

The Pavane pour une infante défunte served as a calming interlude of sumptuous orchestration. The gorgeous main theme appeared in various instrumental combinations, beginning in the horns – mellow yet not quite the liquid gold one might hope for – and most touchingly in the strings and harp. Boléro made for an ebullient close (not to mention an endurance test for the snare drum), giving virtually all the instruments a chance in the spotlight, beginning with the silvery flute – a fine test for the freshly appointed Jessica Sindell. An exercise in repetition as refracted through an orchestral kaleidoscope, the perpetual crescendo never fails to excite.

Pintscher and Gerstein join Cleveland Orchestra in big-boned Rachmaninov, Bartók

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 1, 2018

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
 Encore:
 Chopin: Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42
Bartók: The Wooden Prince, Op. 13, Sz. 60

A return appearance from former Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow Matthias Pintscher is always a welcome sight at Severance Hall. Pintscher’s program was comprised of two large-scale works, both from Eastern Europe, and both from the first decades of the 20th-century. Rachmaninov’s enduring Third Piano Concerto made for a meaty first half with Gilmore Artist Award winner Kirill Gerstein at the keyboard. The opening melody was haunting in its monastic simplicity, and never sentimentalized. Gerstein took matters at a fairly brisk tempo – at times feeling a bit rushed, but he always maintained a certain elegance. His commanding tone and massive dynamic range made the lasting impact, however – an unflagging intensity which paid its dividends especially in the cadenza. Gerstein elected for the larger of the two the composer supplied; beginning with a rumbling in the bass it built to immense power. The cadenza quite ingeniously also served as the movement’s recapitulation; without much left to say after that monstrosity the movement ended quietly, almost impressionistically.

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Mathias Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A doleful lament marked the slow movement, encouraged by the choir of winds and long-bowed strings. Gerstein’s line was initially distressed but soon gave way to display his lyrical gift, and a multitude of moods were traversed, in turns scherzo-like, impassioned, and the sudden yet seamless transition to the finale. A vigorous march, bright and brilliant, offered no respite for Gerstein’s prodigious stamina and technical arsenal, up to and including the triumphant major-key ending in cascading glory. An encore was nearly demanded; Gerstein obliged with a Chopin waltz of effortless elegance.

Bartók’s The Wooden Prince, in only its third Cleveland Orchestra performance, was a foray into much less familiar territory. A one-act ballet spanning the continuum of nearly an hour, it is scored for an astonishingly large orchestra (some highlights: quadruple woodwinds – including two contrabassoons and two saxophones – an extensive percussion section, and four-hands celesta). The work began with a mysterious sounding drone (perhaps echoing Wagner’s Das Rheingold), firmly in a late-Romantic idiom. In many ways, this is a work in the tradition of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking scores for the Ballets Russes, with the intensity of some passages rivaling even that of the Rite.

The story of The Wooden Prince is a bit convoluted, but certain instruments representing specific characters served as a loose roadmap. The sweetly playful tone Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet deftly brought the princess’s coquettishness to life, and a folk melody in the low strings that would later resurface was quite striking. The dance between the princess and titular wooden prince (much to the chagrin of the real prince) was given with a relentless drive and folksy authenticity, with clever scoring emphasizing the prince’s wooden composition – castanets, xylophone, and col legno strings. Robert Walters’ fine English horn solo brought forth an apotheosis, buttressed by heavenly high strings (to my ears, another nod to Wagner, namely the prelude to Lohengrin). A happily-ever-after ending was achieved, marked by peaceful resolution and a sparkling celesta. Like the Rachmaninov that preceded, this was a supreme test of stamina and energy which Pintscher and the orchestra surmounted admirably. By happy coincidence (or smart programming), those interested in Pintscher’s other persona as a composer will have a chance to hear one of his works next week.

Kirill GersteinPhoto: Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein, photo credit Marco Borggreve

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