Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cleveland Orchestra: Musically Speaking, Dvorak's Symphony 9, "From the New World"

A magnificently delightful afternoon is the best way to summarize today's experience at Severance Hall; in four parts: Tour, Prelude, Concert, Q&A.

"Like driving a Rolls Royce [or a] Ferrari" -- Bernard de Billy on conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.

The Musically Speaking series takes from the Chicago Symphony's Beyond The Score concept -- which I've previously read about and was very curious about the real life implementation I couldn't have been more delighted by the outcome. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Concert (3-5pm): From the New World is one of my favorite pieces; and thanks to the Beyond the Score programming I feel like I have a much better understanding of the influences behind the piece -- and why some of the passages have always seemed very familiar. It's easy to think that music gets composed in a vacuum, and program notes -- no matter how well written -- can only do so much to break the vacuum. The combination of short passages from the piece, passages from other pieces as well as contemporary reports, letters, and video eliminated the vacuum.

This is one of few pieces I've heard performed previously (September 23rd by the CIM Orchestra); while comparing a music conservatory's playing to that of The Cleveland Orchestra may not be completely fair it's the only comparison I can make. In three words, the Cleveland Orchestra's performance effervescent and delicate. It had a certain sparkling quality that I didn't hear in the CIM performance, and enough energy to carry things, yet not mindlessly crashing through the piece. The playing was quite simply passioned.

Previously, I had noted that I thought the 1st and 2nd movements were two slow for my tastes. In this performance, the 1st movement was much more my speed; and it turns out (thanks to Beyond the Score) that the blame for the speed of the 2nd movement can be blamed on the original conductor.

The Tour (1-2pm): On selected Sundays tours are offered of Severance Hall; I've done the tour before but each guide has their own version of the story and I've never seen the same tour twice. While I still wish more "back stage" areas were covered instead of purely ceremonial areas, today included a view of the real organ pipes an the George Szell Memorial Library which I hadn't seen previously. The tour segued into...

The Prelude Concert (2-2:40pm): Unfortunately, the tour hadn't finished by the time the prelude concert began and I missed the first piece (Ewazen's Quintet for English Horn and Strings); the second piece (Dvorak's String Quartet No. 10, op. 51) was beautifully played however I'm not sure if I was supposed to realize a connection between that piece and From the New World, aside from the common composer -- the audience was nearly standing room only; certainly the largest group I've ever seen in the Chamber Hall.

The Q&A (5pm-): As the cherry on top, a too-brief Question and Answer session with Messrs Bernard de Billy (conductor), Gary Ginsling (Orchestra general manager), and Robert Walters (English horn) followed the concert. Two of my most common requests for understanding classical music have been to provide more context for the piece and any context for the orchestra. Beyond the Score answers the problem of context for the piece, and the wonderful Q&A session opened the window for context for the orchestra. I was particularly interested to hear Mr. Walters's personal connections to the piece-- the homesickness on a European tour especially. Likewise, Mr. de Billy's comments on conducting the orchestra were illuminating; from the ease with which rehearsals progressed to the comparison drawn between conducting in Cleveland and driving a luxury car.

I hope the Orchestra would offer this type of Q&A were more frequently -- it certainly adds a level of understanding to see how the musicians and conductor approach the music and how past experiences have affected their connection to the pieces.

On my way out to my car after the Q&A session I ran into a few of the folks from last weekend's Heights Arts concert -- and the words "I read your blog" caught me so completely off guard I couldn't appropriately complement them on todays performance. Scratch that, I stood staring like a speechless idiot. In the same breath a woman reminded me that she was sitting behind me at the CIM percussion concert... Small world (and thanks for reading!) =)


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