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

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.

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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

Cleveland Orchestra reaches ecstasy in Tristan und Isolde

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
April 21, 2018

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Gerhard Siegel, tenor (Tristan)
Nina Stemme, soprano (Isolde)
Okka von der Damerau, mezzo-soprano (Brangäne)
Ain Anger, bass (King Marke)
Alan Held, bass-baritone (Kurwenal)
Sean Michael Plumb, baritone (Melot)
Matthew Plenk, tenor (Young Sailor/Shepherd)
Francisco X. Prado, baritone (Steersman)

Men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

If there is one thing for which Franz Welser-Möst’s tenure in Cleveland is to be remembered, surely it should be his steadfast commitment to opera – hardly surprising for someone who has held music directorships at the major opera houses of Vienna and Zurich. This reached an apex Saturday night with the first of three performances of Wagner’s monumental and incomparable masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. Inclusive of two intermissions, total performance time fell just short of the five hour mark, yet the intensity never waned (although, regrettably, the number of empty seats noticeably increased following each intermission). A platform for the singers above the orchestra was erected at the back of the stage allowing the focal point to shift between the excellent cast and the orchestra. The opera was presented strictly in concert, sans staging, allowing one to be enraptured by the sheer beauty and power of the music undiluted.

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Gerhard Siegel (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde), and Okka von der Damerau (Brangäne) with Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, all photos © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The justly famous prelude hovered on the edge of audibility, barely a few seconds in before the first statement of the dissonant Tristan chord that would remain unresolved until the very end. Welser-Möst’s fluid conducting gave the arching melodic lines an inexorable if unfulfilled sense of yearning. In spite of the star-studded cast of singers, one was reminded time and again that the orchestra was perhaps the evening’s biggest standout, sounding like the most seasoned of operatic ensembles. Tenor Matthew Plenk had the first vocal appearance in the role of the Young Sailor, singing unaccompanied from offstage – as effective here as he was in his other minor role of the Shepherd. The extraordinary Swedish soprano Nina Stemme served as Isolde, and much of the first act was centered on her dialogue with her maidservant Brangäne, given by Okka von der Damerau, whose darker-hued mezzo served as an ideal complement to Stemme.

Bass-baritone Alan Held was an imposing Kurwenal, providing a voice of reason amidst the surrounding passion. Gerhard Siegel was a fine if uneven Tristan, his first exchange with Isolde quickly shifting from confrontation to love song. The first act closed with courtly and glorious brass hailing the return of King Marke, to whom Isolde was to wed – an unsettling display of victory given the inevitability of tragedy. Also of note on the instrumentalist front were the solo passages of principal viola Wesley Collins, along with the plangent clarinet and sinuous English horn, the latter of which has unusual prominence in this work.

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Siegel (Tristan) and Stemme (Isolde) with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra

The magical second act was centered on the two lovers, opening with a passionate prelude, with now distant horn calls signaling Marke’s departure for the evening. Stemme all but conquered the superhuman demands of her role, slicing through the even the densest orchestral passages, the immediacy and power this preeminent Isolde of our time extraordinary to witness. Siegel, though still arresting and convincing, wasn’t quite an even match as his delivery seemed to fall short of that of a true Heldentenor. Isolde lamented being a slave of the day, introducing the opera’s central duality of light versus dark – it is in the darkness of night where passions can run free and the pair celebrated in triumphant bliss, freed from the boundaries of daylight. A particularly affecting duet took a melody first developed in Wagner’s earlier song Träume from the Wesendonck Lieder. Mathilde Wesendonck, the song cycle’s namesake, was a married woman with whom Wagner was romantically entangled, that is to say, the plot of Tristan had analogs in the composer’s own biography (and parenthetically, local audiences had the recent chance to hear the lieder during a City Music concert this past December).

Damerau’s Brangäne warned of Marke’s impending return, a nearly surreal moment coming from offstage as the couple reached a state of transcendence together. Tristan introduced the passionate rapture motif, and a steadfast pull towards resolution of dissonance was abruptly halted by the appearance of the king, as true resolution could only happen in death. The Estonian bass Ain Anger supplied the role of Marke with sonorous and stentorian resound, aided by some fine playing in the bass clarinet. The somber prelude to the final act was a remarkable expression of pain (it too having roots in the Wesendonck Lieder). A shepherd was accompanied by a lone English horn, which Welser-Möst opted not to conduct, instead allowing the soloist rhapsodic, free-form delivery. Siegel had his finest moments here in Act III, with Tristan giving an impassioned monologue even while mortally wounded. The cellos yearned as Tristan and Isolde were briefly reunited, and Stemme’s closing Mild und leise was utterly rapturous, with the long-anticipated resolution finally arriving, and gloriously so. The shimmering, lustrous final chord left the audience in an almost trance-like state, and closed a performance that will persist in memory for years to come.

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Siegel (Tristan) and Stemme (Isolde) with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra

 

Welser-Möst closes winter residency with a festive (and truncated) Seasons

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Golda Schultz, soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, acting director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 18, 2018

Haydn: Excerpts from Die Jahreszeiten, Hob. XXI:3

It is often joked that one can experience all four seasons during the course of a single day in Ohio, and this was certainly the case on Thursday with The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus performing Haydn’s late oratorio The Seasons, a traversal through each of the titular quarters of the calendar year. This is also unfortunately the season for illness: a matter of hours before the performance, two of the three vocal soloists were forced to withdraw for health reasons (tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who himself was to replace an indisposed Thomas Hampson).

Without sufficient time to book substitutes, an abridged version of The Seasons was arranged, excising all parts for the male soloists. What was salvaged, however, was the not inconsiderable amount of material for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, all expertly prepared and certainly whetting one’s appetite for more. The many gaps were filled in with Welser-Möst’s user-friendly and often humorous commentary, a veritable Cliff’s Notes version of the whole work. As recompense for those hoping for a complete performance, complimentary tickets were offered for the Saturday performance, by which point Schmitt had adequately recovered and a substitute was found in Alexander Dobson, allowing Welser-Möst to close his brief winter residency on a festive note before taking the orchestra on tour to New York and Miami.

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

As with each section, an orchestral prelude began Spring, evidencing Haydn as master orchestrator, and here filled with pathos as the coldness of winter gradually subsided. For these performances, Welser-Möst opted for the German version of the text, although Haydn simultaneously prepared an English setting to appease his considerable following in London. The chorus sang of the sweetness of spring, given with a fittingly sweet tone, and a fugue brought matters to a resounding close – and the contrapuntal writing surely didn’t go unnoticed by Beethoven when writing his own major choral works.

Soprano Golda Schultz had a lovely aria in Summer; when singing of a shepherd’s reed, she was in poignant duet with oboist Frank Rosenwein. While the soprano’s role is perhaps the smallest of the three soloists, without her male counterparts on Thursday Schultz shined as the star of the performance. A tempest filled with Sturm und Drang broke the haze of summer (again, an almost certain inspiration for Beethoven in his Pastoral symphony) before closing in a peaceful evening. Regrettable, though, that the imitations of frogs and other summer wildlife had to be cut. The scheduled intermission following was also jettisoned, and rightfully so as the excerpts totaled about 70 minutes, roughly half the length of the complete piece.

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Franz Welser-Möst addressing the audience

A rustic and halcyon mood characterized Autumn, with a bevy of hunting horns serving as a rallying call and gestures in the orchestra that suggested barking dogs. The rousing chorus told of the joys and bounty of the harvest, replete with wine and bacchanalia. At one point, the orchestra imitated the folk sounds of bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy. The prelude to Winter painted a barren landscape, but Schultz’s aria added warmth to the cold in displaying the full operatic potential of her instrument. Near the work’s end, one found a meditation on the cyclical nature of life as symbolized by the recurrent seasons (and I couldn’t help but being reminded of the similar themes conveyed in the concluding scene of The Cunning Little Vixen, with which this season began), and a final song of praise brought the oratorio to a resplendent close.

A tip of the hat to all involved in successfully pulling off a radically altered performance on exceptionally short notice. While it goes without saying that this cut-and-paste version was a bit disjointed, I wondered if it was altogether necessary to attempt to fill the gaps instead of letting the music speak for itself, abridged or otherwise. Nonetheless, Welser-Möst’s commentary was well-received and in dutiful service to the score. In his opening remarks, executive director André Gremillet described the evening’s performance as a “unique concert experience” – that it surely was, and in the best way possible.

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Golda Schultz and Franz Welser-Möst

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra soar to tragic heights in Mahler’s Sixth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Tragic

The Cleveland Orchestra is pulling all the stops in opening their centennial season, with this week’s attention turned toward a monumental Mahler score in addition to Saturday night’s gala. Before the music began, Thursday’s performance saw the annual presentation of the Distinguished Service Award, this year given to Chair of the Board of Trustees Dennis W. LaBarre. Following that moment of celebration, Welser-Möst and the orchestra embarked on a journey through darkness with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, unique amongst the composer’s symphonic corpus in that it ends in unresolved tragedy.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
The opening movement was taken at a brisk tempo, and one could sense the immediate buildup of potential energy that would power the work’s unrelenting cataclysms. Terse, motivic cells yielded a pulsating march theme, punctuated by the shrillness of the winds. Another gesture was introduced that would recur throughout, namely the major triad collapsing into the minor, prescient of the tragic trajectory. Some contrast was to be had in the lushly flowing “Alma” theme, while the development offered a particularly striking moment with the celesta and offstage cowbells suggesting some distant, hallucinogenic dream of the Austrian countryside. Perhaps Mahler’s most classically-proportioned movement, the recapitulation brought to a triumphant close, though as was later evident, only deceptively so in this hollow victory.

There has long been contention regarding the ordering of the two inner movements. The critical edition places the scherzo ahead of the Andante, while Mahler changed his mind during rehearsals and opted to conduct the Andante first. Welser-Möst honored Mahler’s decision, not just with regards to the Sixth’s chronology, but in terms of tempo as well – as he remarked in the program notes, its 1906 premiere with the composer conducting spanned 77 minutes, and Thursday’s performance clocked in at that on the dot. The Andante is in the distant key of E flat major, a tritone apart from the A minor of the other movements, and indeed, it occupied a peaceful world far removed from the surrounding tumult. One was struck by the genial warmth of the clarinets, and in due course, gleaming solos in the cor anglais and horn.

The march theme from the first movement returned in the scherzo, this time mutated into the grotesque and exhibiting a manic energy. The percussion added a particular grimness, while the pair of trios provided some lighter moments, if only relatively speaking. Afendi Yusuf’s solo clarinet passages were filled with rhythmic swagger though perhaps a notch too loud, and answered by the uneasiness of the col legno strings. Otherworldly sounds in the celesta opened the finale, thus beginning the plunge into infinite darkness. A stentorian brass chorale of enormous power, again embodying the decay from major to minor, initiated the movement’s epic, monumental fight, albeit one that would ultimately end in futility. Moments with the apparent potential of victory were quickly snuffed out by the two crashing hammer blows, the second with even more finitude than the first, signifying the point of no return. Some tender moments in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein suggested the possibility of respite, but overtaken as if with inevitability by the hollow emptiness of the conclusion, an unmitigated tragedy after which Welser-Möst held the audience spellbound in reverential silence.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra – note the hammer in the back row, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Sublime Beethoven and primal Stravinsky from Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 28, 2017

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 (transc. for string orchestra by Welser-Möst)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Encore:
Wagner: Good Friday Spell, from Parsifal

After last weekend’s stellar revival performances of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, this week the Cleveland Orchestra turned attention toward purely orchestral music in scores of Beethoven and Stravinsky – a work from late in the career of the former and early in that of the latter, both uniquely revolutionary and iconoclastic. A crown jewel of this season’s offerings is the upcoming cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor served as a generous prelude, presented in a lush transcription for string orchestra by Welser-Möst himself. During the preconcert conservation with him and executive director André Gremillet, the conductor noted that Beethoven’s ethos often resonates with the values on which the United States was founded, and with regards to the late quartets, that they are “half-symphonic”, thus making the expansion to a larger ensemble a logical realization of the composer’s vision.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst’s transcription was fastidiously faithful to Beethoven’s original, with the thoughtful addition of the basses adding weight where appropriate in doubling the cello line an octave below, and imposingly aligned in the back row – a positioning preferred by the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble with which Welser-Möst is intimately familiar. The work’s nebulous, enigmatic opening gave way in due course to the heft of the movement proper, and for one accustomed to hearing it as a quartet, the sight and sound of so many players in precise unison was really quite astounding. The scherzo had the charm of a minuet, contrasted by a more rustic trio, its halcyon bliss interrupted by stormier interludes, bringing to mind the mercurial Schubert.

The heart of the quartet is surely the central and quite extensive “Heiliger Dankgesang”; its unassuming beginnings in the Lydian mode grew to a heartwrenchingly beautiful resound. A sprightly foil was to be found in the brief Alla marcia, effectively a bridge to the finale, with a solo passage at the end given to concertmaster William Preucil as a quasi-cadenza. The last movement was overflowing with nervous energy and angst, an affront to the string quartet’s classical origins and indeed an augur of Romanticism.

In the aforementioned preconcert talk, Welser-Möst touched upon his keenness to include watershed works in the orchestra’s centennial season, and The Rite of Spring certainly fits the bill (and the conductor noted that upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are in that pantheon as well). The impossibly high passage in the solo bassoon unleashed a performance of unrelenting virtuosity, from its cataclysmic, primal climaxes, to the strained moments of a world of sacrificial desolation, the latter particularly notable at the beginning of Part II. It was abundantly clear how deeply ingrained this music is in the orchestra’s DNA, having championed it for decades (think of their landmark 1969 recording with Boulez), yet I was struck by how Welser-Möst opted for crisp articulation and dry textures; while it boasted razor-sharp clarity, it lingered a step below the red-hot intensity other conductors might champion.

Nonetheless, the ovations that followed were richly deserved, and the audience was treated to a rarity: an encore on home turf. Welser-Möst introduced it as a “beautiful piece for a beautiful audience”, otherwise known as the “Good Friday Spell” from Wagner’s divine final opera, Parsifal. Newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf had a shining moment in the spotlight – a sign of good things to come – and after the ferocity of the Stravinsky, the encore allowed the evening to conclude in peaceful radiance.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra