Welser-Möst concludes autumn residency with a powerhouse Mahler 2

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

There’s no question about it: The Cleveland Orchestra’s 101st season has gotten off to a stellar start, with the weekend seeing the last of four diverse and weighty programs led by Welser-Möst before he leaves for engagements elsewhere, not to return until January’s performances of Ariadne auf Naxos. The program in question was devoted to Mahler, familiar territory for these forces, namely the imposing and ultimately glorious Second Symphony – a work not performed on this stage since 2007.

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Welser-Möst, Wong, Harvey, and Cooke (l-r) with Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus

A funeral march is integral to virtually all of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Second in fact begins with one – and a formidable one at that. Nervous tremolos opened, leading inexorably down to the grave in this ferocious outpouring, though interspersed with moments of repose in what made for starkly garish contrasts, with the latter particularly encouraged by the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein. Tempos were brisk – perhaps a bit too much so for my taste – but the yield was music of arresting power, never to be sentimentalized. A stirring brass chorale suggested the venerable Dies irae, and the movement concluded in desolation via a final downward gesture, a fate sounding all but inescapable.

But of course Mahler’s arduous journey doesn’t end there, with the following Andante moderato a folksy foil, as if the struggles immediately preceding had been entirely forgotten in this carefree ländler. A much less tightly-wound tempo achieved a simple, rustic peace, with some playful counterpoint between the strings and winds, leading towards a more animated central section. The main theme returned in a gentle pizzicato, unimpeachably good-natured. A thud in the timpani marked the third movement, with sinuous sixteenths testing the dexterity of the orchestra – a challenge easily surmounted, though again I found the tempo choice a tad rushed. This was the first of two nods to Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs, here a purely instrumental expansion of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, and not entirely a blithe affair as matters erupted into a primal scream.

In another moment of extreme contrast, a sudden shift to light and the divine was achieved in “Urlicht” (another Wunderhorn text), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich introspection a voice from another world. The brass chorales were heavenly, and though only a few minutes in duration, this movement was easily the emotional heart of the entire work. The text concludes with longing for “das ewig selig Leben” – in his pre-concert lecture, Rabbi Roger Klein suggested that Mahler knew that “Urlicht” alone was inadequate to achieve these lofty ambitions, hence necessitating the massive finale, a grueling undertaking.

The calm of “Urlicht” was immediately uprooted with fury unrelenting. An offstage brass added a spatial dimension to the score’s rich detailing (some flubbed notes notwithstanding), and the resurrection motif was unassumingly introduced in the trombones and trumpets. Climaxes were of shattering power, although a more intimate moment saw the fluttering flute of Joshua Smith joined by delicate touches of piccolo. The chorus entered as a unified whisper, building to great force in due course. Joélle Harvey offered an angelic soprano, naturally blending with Cooke, and the organ added even more magnificence to work’s stunningly spectacular conclusion, surely representing the pinnacle of human triumph.

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Welser-Möst explores Prokofiev symphonies with a Bartók centerpiece

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Severance Hall
September 30, 2018

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, Classical
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44

Franz Welser-Möst has expressed an interest in devoting part of the next few seasons to exploring works – particularly those lesser known – of both Prokofiev and Schubert. The first installment came last weekend, with a program bookended by Prokofiev symphonies. Of Prokofiev’s seven works in the genre, only the First and the Fifth are played with any regularity, the remainder being brushed to the periphery. While the remaining five are admittedly somewhat uneven in quality, an opportunity to discover them – particularly at the level of playing witnessed over the weekend – is emphatically welcomed.

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Yefim Bronfman, photo credit Oded Antman

Familiar territory opened the program, however, with the composer’s First Symphony, the so-called Classical for its patent inspiration to Haydn but as through the wit of a 20th-century modernist. It opened with a burst of energy capped by its classical charm, with transparent textures balancing a classical economy and Prokofiev’s piquant harmonies. The Larghetto was gentle and untroubled, evidencing a side of the composer wholly different than the enfant terrible as he is often characterized. The gavotte glanced back in time even further with its roots in the Baroque; here a stately theme was spiked with sweet dissonances, a creation that must have satisfied the composer as he re-used the material in Romeo and Juliet. Although I did find the flutes to be a bit overzealous, the dynamics in the movement’s conclusion were brought down to a whisper, setting the stage for the high-spirited finale.

The rarely-heard Third Symphony closed the afternoon, with the orchestra blossoming substantially, no longer in classical proportions for this daunting, unwieldy work. Some its material was taken from the composer’s ill-fated opera The Fiery Angel, here completely reimagined as a symphony (the Fourth Symphony was also based on material from a stage work, namely The Prodigal Son). The clangorous opening movement was an affair of overwhelmingly dense texture, in some semblance of sonata form, difficult to follow yet the orchestra had a keen sense of its architecture. Striking orchestrations yielded unforgiving sonorities, and matters closed with an extended passage in the contrabassoon leading down to the grave.

A strained wistfulness opened the Andante, less unrelenting than the previous but still filled with a pervasive unease. There were notable solo contributions from concertmaster Peter Otto and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, and eerie glissandos added to the restlessness. The third movement overflowed with a motoric drive and bizarre effects, not the least of which were the rapid yet quiet glissandos that dotted the score’s dense pages. A more measured B section offered momentary respite, only for matters to end with an eruption in the brass. The finale was shrouded in the darkness of the low brass, merciless in its shrill bombast inexorably leading to a crashing ending.

Situated between the two symphonies was Bartók’s second piano concerto, a formidable work notorious for its technical demands, here conquered by one its greatest champions, Yefim Bronfman (incidentally, the last soloist to perform the work here was Lang Lang who graced the same stage during the previous night’s gala). The opening flourish saw Bronfman in counterpoint with the brass, and the pianist delivered with a kinetic drive, this work ideal for his supersized virtuosity and steel-fingered playing. The movement continued apace with relentlessness but yet a sheer brilliance of sound, and Bronfman was in fine balance with his orchestral colleagues, never at the risk of getting swallowed by their expansiveness.

Plaintive strings – their first appearance – opened the central movement, sounding almost incorporeal after the mechanistic physicality of the preceding. A simple, direct melody in the piano offered utter clarity of tone, while the contrasting Presto was rapid and unsettling. The slow passage returned, filled with spectral trills, evidencing Bartók’s idiosyncratic “night music.” A bass drum initiated the finale, and matters exploded with a nervous energy, dashing any hopes of a peaceful conclusion – and Bronfman’s flurry of double octaves had to be seen to be believed.

Cleveland Orchestra opens season with singular ambition

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 20, 2018

Rathbun: Pantheon
Abrahamsen: Left, alone
Tchaikovsky: Suite from Swan Lake, Op. 20

Encore:
Tchaikovsky: Marche slave, Op. 31

After a momentous centennial season, Franz Welser-Möst and his Cleveland Orchestra are back down to business, opening their second century with a challenging program emblematic of this orchestra’s remarkable ambition. Instead of beginning the season with tried-and-true warhorses as some orchestras might do, the first half was comprised of a world premiere and a US premiere, and even the more populist second half – Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – was a welcome alternative to the composer’s evergreen symphonies.

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Franz Welser-Möst receiving the Distinguished Service Award from Richard K. Smucker, all photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The inaugural work of the season came from the orchestra’s own ranks, assistant principal oboe Jeffrey Rathbun, an accomplished composer in his own right with this being the fourth occasion on which TCO has performed a work of his. Rathbun is certainly a man who knows this orchestra well having been a member for 28 years, and the aptly named Pantheon was a lovely tribute to his colleagues. The work began in the rumbling timpani, with fragments quickly coalescing into a vigorous drive. A more relaxed B section followed, generally tonal and quasi-Romantic, as well as being a veritable “concerto for orchestra” featuring solos from nearly every instrument, showcasing the beauty and power of The Cleveland Orchestra. A dulcet passage from concertmaster Peter Otto was a highlight, but unsurprisingly, the most extensive solo went to the oboe – although Rathbun opted to experience the work from the audience, giving the solo to double-reed colleague Frank Rosenwein.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Jeffrey Rathbun

In the spirit of contemporary music, this weekend’s concerts were dedicated to the memory of Oliver Knussen, a major force with deep ties to Cleveland. Matters continued apace with the first American performance of Left, alone (written 2014-15) by leading Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. Abrahamsen is a composer quite familiar to this orchestra; its performances of his song cycle let me tell you were given at both Severance Hall and Carnegie Hall to widespread critical acclaim in 2016. As the title cleverly suggests, Left, alone is a piano concerto for the left hand alone, in the spirit of Ravel’s which was memorably performed last February (perhaps a future season could include a survey of left hand piano concertos?). Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was the work’s dedicatee, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud.

The notion of a work for the left hand alone is one of deep personal significance to Abrahamsen who himself was born with a palsy that impaired use of his right hand. Left, alone is conceived in two parts, each further divided into three interconnected sections. It opened percussively with the center of gravity in the piano’s bottom register, incessant in its rhythmic complexities. In addition to Tharaud’s solo line, there was scoring for an orchestral piano (two hands), played by Joela Jones in counterpoint with Tharaud to yield an intriguing spatial effect. The following section was markedly slower, almost impressionistic – more suggested than executed – while the movement’s conclusion was of greater motion.

The latter half opened with a very brief statement in the solo piano with a touch of trumpet, nearly suspended in time, while matters became wild and unrelenting in the ensuing section, more than living up to its designation of Prestissimo tempestuoso. The final section was the most extended, first invoking again the suspended atmosphere by way of a repeated gesture. At one point Tharaud was instructed to pluck the piano’s strings, illustrative of the concerto’s diverse palette of timbre. The texture became more animated and virtuosic until its perplexingly abrupt ending, as if being cut off in mid-sentence. A work that surely deserves a second hearing, and one couldn’t imagine a stronger advocate than Tharaud who has certainly earned an invitation back to Severance Hall.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Alexandre Tharaud

Following intermission was the presentation of the Distinguished Service Award which this year went to none other than Welser-Möst. In his heartfelt remarks, the conductor reminded the audience of music’s essential value, deeming it “nutrition for our souls.” A 40-minute suite from Swan Lake concluded, with various selections from the complete ballet culled by Welser-Möst. The overture began with doleful solos from Rosenwein and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, while the waltz demonstrated the composer’s early gift for the dance form which would be used to such great effect in his later symphonies and ballets, its graceful themes burgeoning into a boisterous affair. Scene (No. 10) was marked by a plaintive oboe solo, showing beauty in tragedy. “Dance of the Swans” was appropriately featherlight, while “Odette and the Prince” featured a lively dialogue between the harp, violin, and cello. A series of four national dances followed with an especially ebullient csárdás, and the final scene was given with a searing passion towards its tragic end.

Continuing the celebratory spirit of opening weekend, an encore was presented, namely the same composer’s Marche slave. A sinuous, fluid melody was quintessentially Tchaikovskyian in this energetic workout of a brilliant showpiece.

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Franz Welser-Möst leading The Cleveland Orchestra in Swan Lake

Summers@Severance closes in homage to 18th-century masters

Cleveland Orchestra
Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
August 24, 2018

Handel: An Occasional Oratorio, HWV 62 – Overture
Haydn: Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major, Hob. XVIII/11
Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K183

This summer’s concluding offering at Severance Hall from The Cleveland Orchestra culled three masterworks from the 18th-century, compressing the tried-and-true overture-concerto-symphony program format to just over an hour. Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was conductor Jonathan Cohen, a specialist in this repertoire of particular note as artistic director of the early music ensemble Arcangelo.

The earliest work was presented first, namely the overture to Handel’s Occasional Oratorio in its first Cleveland Orchestra performance. Cohen led the reduced, almost chamber-sized orchestra in tight direction from the harpsichord, with the overture opening bold and stately, contoured by the dotted rhythms as per the French style. The small brass section added a sheen of brightness, and following the introductory material, matters took off via the fleet strings. Cast in four sections, the penultimate featured a lovely long-breathed oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, and the work concluded in a brief but jubilant march.

Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D major served as a platform for another local debut, that of South African keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout. The opening movement was lithe and sprightly, encouraged by Bezuidenhout’s crisp playing, direct in expression and always of utmost economy. The cadenza demonstrated his fine technique, but not without moments of introspection. In the slow movement, the sweet lyricism offered repose if not quite achieving the rapt beauty one would find in a Mozart concerto, and Hungarian finale recalled the composer’s dutiful service to the Esterházy family. Bursting with a folksy joviality, a vigorous theme in concert with the horns was of particular delight.

Mozart’s first minor key symphony – No. 25 in G minor – concluded the evening (incidentally, a few months prior TCO traversed Mozart’s only other minor key symphony, also in G minor). Opening in energetic Sturm und Drang, a looming darkness was assuaged by a singing oboe line and the buoyancy of the dance-like secondary subject. The delicate gestures of the Andante counted as calm following the storm, while the main theme of the ensuing minuet was sharply punctuated, contrasted by the mellifluous winds and brass of the trio – though here and elsewhere regrettably plagued by intonation issues. A nervous energy began the finale, its potential soon becoming kinetic to guide the work with inevitability to its ominous conclusion.

Blomstedt and Brahms: an inspired pairing

Cleveland Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 27, 2018

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

The opening Summers@Severance evening for this season saw the return of Herbert Blomstedt, remarkably now 91 years old but hardly flagging in vitality. Draped in a white coat, he dressed the part of the elder statesman that he is, masterfully leading the orchestra in a single work, namely Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Tonight sees him reprise the program at Blossom with the addition of Mozart’s Jupiter – while I wished that or at least an overture could have padded out Friday’s brief program, the gripping performance certainly mitigated the desire for more music.

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Herbert Blomstedt, photo credit Gert Mothes

Blomstedt’s graceful, batonless conducting produced the gentle rise and fall of the primary theme, and the balance he achieved was quite idiosyncratic – rather than opting for a homogenized sound, each instrument family was clearly delineated in a striking array of coloristic variety. During the development, the main theme resurfaced as a stentorian skeleton of itself to mesmerizing effect, and matters built to searing passion and heightened drama. An arresting horn call opened the slow movement, only to give way to graceful and peaceful plodding, rallying to vigor as needed. A fine clarinet solo from Daniel McKelway was a memorable highlight.

The scherzo was given a spirited workout, gleaming with brassy exuberance and the unmistakable ring of the triangle. A progression of eight deftly sculpted chords served as the bedrock of the imposing passacaglia finale. Prominent roles for each instrument abounded in the movement’s intricacies, almost like a concerto for orchestra, and Blomstedt guided his colleagues to a blistering conclusion.

In other Cleveland Orchestra news, concertmaster William Preucil was officially suspended earlier in day in response to multiple allegations of sexual assault, right on the heels of a major exposé in The Washington Post detailing assault in classical music circles. As noted in the linked article, some of these allegations have been public for over a decade – I was relieved to hear of some decisive action taking place, overdue as it might be.

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Davies, Welser-Möst, and Jacobs

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.”

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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.