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.