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 baton 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.

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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

Shimmering Ravel from Pintscher and Thibaudet

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 22, 2018

Ravel: Suite from Ma mère l’Oye
Ravel: Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand
 Encore:
 Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

While much of this year’s attention in the realm of French impressionism is focused on Debussy, it being the centenary of his death, the weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts opted to acknowledge another anniversary – the 90th of Ravel’s 1928 concert tour across North America, wherein he introduced audiences this side of the Atlantic to many of his works for the first time. The program, a generous sampling of Ravel at his best, was devised by Charles Dutoit, who was to conduct it with several major orchestras across the country, but alas, now that the truth has come to light, TCO and others have severed ties with him – and better late than never. On hand to take the reins was the talented composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, who previously served as this orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2001-03.

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Matthias Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The lovely suite from Mother Goose opened the evening, the fine flute solo in the “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” setting the tone of a nostalgic look backwards towards childhood. “Tom Thumb” had to be restarted after a minor disruption from latecomers filing in, but once matters got underway, limpid passages in the oboe and English horn conveyed a wonderful innocence, an innocence later marred by the lively portrayal of birds that expunged the titular character’s trail of breadcrumbs. Colorful orchestrations and playful pentatonicism made “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodes” especially charming, while “Conversations Between Beauty and the Beast” was marked by the contrast of Afendi Yusuf’s lyrical clarinet with Jonathan Sherwin’s stilted and lumbering contrabassoon. The concluding “Fairy Garden”, not tied to a narrative, was a magical world of iridescent orchestral color.

Both of Ravel’s piano concertos have long been central to Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s repertoire, and one couldn’t have asked for a more convincing soloist in the idiosyncratic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, cast in a single movement, 18-minute arc. Thibaudet took to the stage looking as dapper as ever in his custom-made Vivienne Westwood suit. The work began with ominous, rumbling tremolos and, most unusually, a contrabassoon solo (what a night this was for the contrabassoon!). A commanding entrance in the piano followed suit, and one had to see it to believe that Thibaudet was indeed playing with only one hand in this powerful extended monologue. In the more lyrical passages, Thibaudet beautifully brought out the melody, a feat for which the left hand is particularly well-suited as the melodic notes are by design played with the hand’s strongest fingers. The pianist was finely abetted by richness of the orchestra, greatly expanded from the relatively modest forces of Mother Goose.

Downward cascades in the piano, later echoed in the winds, marked the work’s livelier second half, dominated by a spunky martial theme and boisterous, jazz-inflected climaxes. An expansive cadenza put Thibaudet in the spotlight once more, and the concerto was brought to an enormously satisfying close, as only someone who has truly mastered this daunting work could do. A rousing ovation brought Thibaudet back for an encore, and in keeping with the evening’s theme, he selected the same composer’s Pavane for a Dead Princess – a perfect choice indeed. When introducing the piece he jokingly noted that this time he’d play with both hands; his performance gorgeously brought out the heart-wrenching melody over the sumptuously chromatic accompaniment.

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Jean-Yves Thibaudet – playing with the left hand alone

Daphnis and Chloé is best known in the suites Ravel later distilled (the second of the two almost always the preferred choice), but at 50 minutes, the complete ballet remains the composer’s longest and most ambitious work, and it’s a shame it isn’t presented in its original conception more often – especially after a performance as memorable as what Pintscher and the Clevelanders gave. The ballet is particularly remarkable in its scoring for chorus, their wordless vocalizations alternating between open- and closed-mouthed for a variety of striking effects. Appearing early and often, the chorus added a rich layer to the already kaleidoscopic tapestry, further evidence that the well-worn suites are a mere shell of Ravel’s ambition. With several principals sitting out the first half, they appeared with vigor for Daphnis, of particular note was the silvery flute of Joshua Smith, and the winding oboe lines of Frank Rosenwein. Graceful solos were later had by concertmaster William Preucil, while the Danse générale was an energetic affair, boasting a glittering orchestration as only Ravel could do, replete with ample harp and celesta. The nocturne that closed Part I introduced a wind machine, an intriguing effect to be sure, but yet seemed perhaps out of place in a work otherwise so finely crafted (Stravinsky famously compared Ravel’s fastidiousness to that of a Swiss watch).

Part II opened with an interlude, made all the more mysterious by the chorus, and matters built to the aggressive War Dance, and there saw the evening’s most extrovert playing. Chloé’s Dance of Supplication was lush and sensuous by contrast, heightened by an English horn passage from Robert Walters. The familiar Daybreak marked the ballet’s final scene, a shimmering sunrise, with these liquescent rays of light a veritable apotheosis, and a much fuller effect was to be had with the inclusion of the chorus unlike as in the leaner suite. Pantomime was highlighted by an extended flute solo from Smith which represented Syrinx, also bringing to mind Debussy’s work for solo flute on the same subject. A further Danse générale closed the work which saw the chorus at full throttle for a most dramatic finish.

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Pintscher leading the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus