Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cleveland Orchestra: Fabio Luisi: Mozart and Strauss

R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K453 (Jonathan Biss, piano)
R. Strauss: Aus Italien, Op. 16
Fabio Luisi, conductor

I was on my way to hear this program last night when I was involved in a minor traffic accident -- everyone is OK, and this is, after all, what insurance is for. But this is most certainly not the time of year I'd like to pull a grand out of my wallet for the deductible -- it may reduce my performing arts attendance in the near term.

Anyway, thanks to the courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra staff I was able to make this evening's concert and while I had originally contemplated just missing this weekend's program I'm glad I made it to tonight's concerts.

Before we get to the music, though, one of the interesting things about sitting on the box level is the stories of people who have been life-long orchestra supporters. Before tonight's program a woman in the next box over made eye contact "I'm curious about you," she begins, "I see you at all kinds of concerts....are you connected with the orchestra?" -- that's actually a question I'm getting with increasing frequency -- and after I answer in the negative we exchange idle chatter. At Intermission I learn that she's had her seats for the past fifty years.

Though her husband, once an actuary for the Musician's Union, passed eight years ago, she's kept both seats "so I don't have to come alone" Though her tenure started with George Szell (and she didn't particularly care for Boulez's stint in Cleveland) she's kept up -- in what she thinks are the best seats in the house -- but back problems have her concerned that this season may be the last that she's able to attend, possibly ending that 50-year stretch.

The concert tonight, under the baton of recently-named Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Fabio Luisi, was one of those concerts wherein dedication spanning five decades needs no further explanation.

From the opening notes of Till Eulenspeigel's Merry Pranks the orchestra sounded happy and the playing was at ease. Mr. Luisi, likewise, when the profile of his face could be seen was clearly pleased with the sound he was drawing out of the orchestra. The piece has a innocent melody in the ends with a few minor echos in the strings -- where it's easy to imagine a character strolling along innocently -- with occasional explosions of music where a prank was slipped in.

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 was a beautiful blend of orchestra and Jonathan Biss's fine work at the keyboard. Perhaps most interesting contextually was the fact that Mozart scored this piece not for himself but for one of his students (also, according to a tale retold in the program notes, Mozart had taught his pet Starling to whistle the last movement of the piece) -- the first movement was so smoothly played that at one point Mr. Biss took up a solo cadenza that was well into it before it occurred to me that the orchestra had stopped playing. The second movement was a bit too relaxing where I almost drifted off, and I had no distinct feelings about the third movement.

Closing out the program was Strauss's delightful "Symphonic Fantasy" Aus Italien [From Italy] the program notes describe it as perhaps four symphonic postcards and I think "postcard" implies too static a scene. From the opening notes of the first movement (In the Country - Adante) I got the sensation of dawn peaking over the horizon, with a pastoral morning and a glorious mid-day sun. The second movement (Amid the Ruins of Rome: Fantastic Scenes of Vanished Splendor; Feelings of Sadness and Grief in the Midst of Sunniest Surroundings - Allegro molto con brio) started with a feeling of sweeping happiness but became unsettled and ended with a feeling of intense drama. The third movement, On the Shores of Sorrento - Adantino, had a slow and leisurely development and didn't really garner my attention until a sweet line in the cellos deliciously grew over fading flutes. The movement also featured the occasional burst of orchestral color appearing seemingly from nowhere. The last movement Neapolitan Folk Life (Allegro molto) began with an explosive introduction and then unmistakable variations on Funiculi, Funicula, a song written six years earlier and which Strauss had, apparently, mistaken for an Italian Folk Song -- while it wasn't at the time it arguably is now -- with a particularly beautiful showing from the strings.


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