Guerrero and Cleveland Orchestra serve sumptuous Tchaikovsky over Thanksgiving weekend

Cleveland Orchestra
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 26, 2017

Copland: El Salón México
Paulus: Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra
 Encore:
 Bach: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29 – Sinfonia (transc. Dupré)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, The Cleveland Orchestra presented a colorful program, each work fittingly rich and delectable as per the spirit of the holiday. On the podium was Costa Rican native Giancarlo Guerrero – currently music director of the Nashville Symphony, he is a familiar face to this orchestra having served as principal guest conductor of their Miami residency from 2011-16. The program opened with two attractive American works, serving as a lighter amuse-bouche before Tchaikovsky’s deeply tragic Fourth Symphony.

Guerrero9_study2 (credit Ma2la)
Giancarlo Guerrero, photo credit Tony Matula

Copland’s El Salón México marked a turning point in his career as looked towards folk music for inspiration, a style with the immediacy and appeal that would make him a populist sensation. Its boisterous opening brought to life a kaleidoscopic Mexican street scene, and potpourri of dance hall folk themes followed in due course, but as refined through lens of the classically trained composer. The performance was especially commendable for the handling of the work’s rhythmic complexities, particularly in the piano and percussion.

Stephen Paulus is a composer with an important Cleveland connection, having written his Violin Concerto No. 3 for concertmaster William Preucil in 2012. He also has no less than four organ concertos to his name; the aptly titled Grand Concerto, dating from 2003, was his third entry in the medium. It proved to be a fine showpiece for Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs as well as a good cause for bringing the console of the remarkable Norton Memorial Organ front and center.

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Paul Jacobs, photo credit Shanghai Conservatory

In spite of the marking “Vivacious and Spirited”, the opening movement began mysteriously, grounded in the low strings and bottom registers of the organ. A duet was to be had between Jacobs and principal flute Joshua Smith, the latter’s instrument perhaps being the orchestral instrument most akin to the organ in that they both produce sound via a column of air traveling through a metallic cylinder. Matters became increasingly exuberant to live up to the composer’s indications, however, and the swashbuckling ending was nearly cinematic in its big-boned melodies.

Marked “Austere – foreboding”, the central movement was of great contrast to the opening, beginning in rigid stoicism, almost religious in discipline – it should be remembered the Paulus was an accomplished voice in the field of sacred music – and the movement built to a powerful chorale. “Jubilant” was a fitting description of the finale’s carnival-like atmosphere, replete with some dazzling footwork from Jacobs in the organ’s pedals. Jacobs indulged the audience with an encore, a wondrous account of the sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata BWV 29 in a transcription for organ. To my mind, more was said in those few minutes than in the entire duration of the Paulus concerto, enjoyable as it was.

Following intermission, Guerrero returned to conduct the main course from memory, namely Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. The arresting opening in the brass, symbolizing fate, was so unforgiving as to suggest that the inevitability of one’s fate was already sealed. A nervous theme began the movement proper, and the principal winds were in in fine form during a section of downward cascades, a gentler moment in this movement of searing passion. The Andantino in modo di canzona began with a plaintive oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein, not as tragic as the preceding but still of deep melancholy, and the burnished tones of the cellos followed suit. A skittish pizzicato characterized the lighter scherzo, later countered by a Slavic folksong in the winds, played perhaps a bit too shrill. The powerhouse finale ramped up the decibels, only for the fate motive to make a fearsome return, rendering the exultant conclusion an unnervingly hollow victory.

Organ
Severance Hall, Norton Memorial Organ front and center
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Ashkenazy and Ax in an inspired partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 3, 2017

Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor, Op. 20
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
 Encore:
 Schumann: Des Abends, No. 1 from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

In the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert on home turf since returning from an extensive – and by all accounts, highly successful – European tour, the stage of Severance Hall boasted the distinguished presence of two of their most veteran collaborators. Serving as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor from 1987-94, Vladimir Ashkenazy made his first podium appearance in Cleveland since 2010. A pair of works by Elgar framed an early Beethoven piano concerto, the central work bringing forth the much-admired Emanuel Ax.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Vladimir Ashkenazy, photo credit Keith Saunders

Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra is the work of burgeoning yet not fully formed talent, but as attractive as it is compact at just over ten minutes in duration. The lilting first movement sounded quite literally piacevole (“pleasant”) in the Cleveland strings, highlighted by a solo passage from concertmaster William Preucil. The songful Larghetto was the heart of the work, and a sure sign of all that was to come for the composer, while the brief finale recalled the opening in its return to triple meter to neatly bookend the work.

A gentle outlining of the tonic C major triad opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and grew in urgency to introduce Ax’s sparkling entry in the solo piano. Ax’s graceful playing flowed with an effortless charm, while there was much heightened drama in the development as Beethoven began to break away from Mozart’s model of the classical concerto, and the extended cadenza showed Ax as a fiery virtuoso. In the slow movement, one was immediately struck by the inclusion of the piano in the opening breaths, and this music of great beauty was further enhanced by the singing clarinets. At the other end of the spectrum was the jocular concluding rondo which bordered on the rambunctious. Ax responded to the warmly enthusiastic reception that followed with an deeply lyrical account of Schumann’s Des Abends (incidentally, a favorite encore of the pianist, having been his choice for the two previous concerto appearances of his I’ve seen – see here and here).

Emanuel Ax_by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax, photo credit Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Written only a few years after the Serenade, Elgar’s Enigma Variations show him at the height of his compositional powers, and was a work that ensured his enduring fame. The theme was presented not without a shroud of mystery – enigmatic indeed – while the first variation was a loving portrait of the composer’s wife, Alice. A variegated chromaticism made the second variation a more pedantic affair, while interjections from the bassoon gave the following a childlike, impish humor. A rich viola solo marked the Ysobel variation in a nod towards the titular violist, and its successor (“Troyte”) was boisterous and big-boned.

The famous “Nimrod” variation was predictably a highpoint, its lush textures building to a cathedral-like resound. Given his long association with several of the London orchestras, it seemed Ashkenazy was able to offer particularly keen insight into this quintessentially British music, “Nimrod” being perhaps the British equivalent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. In contrast, the “Dorabella” variation was featherlight and stammering. A wistful cello solo made for a somber tribute to Elgar’s cellist fried Basil Nevinson, and the penultimate variation featured a fine clarinet solo from Afendi Yusuf in an invocation of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The last variation was Elgar’s portrait of himself, grandiose, and with the self-assurance of a composer utterly convinced of his abilities (albeit a bit more modest than Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben). Surely a high mark of the banner centennial season, let us hope Ashkenazy’s next appearance does not entail another seven year wait!