Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra: Guerrero Conducts Beethoven's Pastoral

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") in F major, Op. 68
Hersch: Night Pieces (for Trumpet and Orchestra), Michael Sachs, trumpet.
Respighi: The Pines of Rome
Giancarlo Guerro, conductor.

The evening was structured a bit differently with the "heavy" piece, in this case Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, which set the evening off to a magnificent start. Each of the five movements, in addition to the typical tempo notation has a relatively detailed subtitle. In Awakening of serene impressions on arriving in the country -- perhaps under the influence of the wonderful weather in Cleveland -- the folksy sound had a very springlike feeling, and I could clearly imagine strolling down a dirt road surrounded by lush green landscapes. In the second movement (Scene by the brookside) I couldn't pin down whether I was hearing the sound of a bubbling brook (as the title would imply) or small waves in a lake lapping over pebbles. There was an oddly unsteady flute--and I wasn't sure what to make of it.

The third (Jolly gathering of country-folk) fourth (Thunderstorm: Tempest) and fifth (Shepherd's Song: Gladsome and thankful feelings after the storm) were played without pause and the mood progressed from an excited gathering with fir, confident strokes without being aggressive -- like a neighborly handshake. A confident solo oboe stood out with announcements...perhaps the event host? The seating position -- immediately next to the unsteady flute from the prior movement made the contrast really stand out. In the fourth movement the storm clouds gathered and the festive sounds turned dreary before becoming stormy. Finally the clouds part, and the sun comes out and the music turns warm.

Unfortunately, the second piece on the program Night Pieces -- a piece commissioned by the Orchestra and composed by Michael Hersch -- was utterly disappointing not to mention headache inducing. A shrill collection of mostly noise, I went into the piece desperately wanting to like it--if for no other reason than it featured the Orchestra's own Michael Sachs--and by the end of the first (of five) movements it took every fiber of my will to stay in my seat and not walk out of the hall. Had this been the last piece on the program I don't think I would have hesitated. The two fleeting highlights both came in the second movement, first a despondent harp comforting the trumpet, and a brief elegy in the strings--but this once again decayed. It probably would have helped if, beyond the composer's biography and comments on the piece there was something (anything!) to help understand why the Orchestra commissioned the piece and why listener should appreciate the piece.

The program concluded with Respighi's delightful The Pines of Rome, who's four movements were played without pause. I think I would have enjoyed it more sans the head pains left over from Night Pieces but even with a slight throbbing it was a series of four vignettes ranging from very festive with a child like exuberance to more mysterious where a religious chant emerges from the darkness and reaches a powerful crescendo. A bird -- a nightingale, to be specific -- is heard in the third movement. The program note observes that "The bird's voice is provided in Respighi's score by a gramophone for which a record used to be supplied by the publisher. Modern performances have more effective ways of suggesting the nocturnal song." -- it wasn't clear if the amazingly lifelike bird heard calling about Severance Hall tonight was the work of the orchestra's musicians or that of a modern take on the gramophone. The fourth and final movement starts with the muted sounds of an army marching and that army comes from the background to the glorious -- crescendoed -- foreground.

It's impossible to avoid drawing a parallel between that army and the Orchestra's return to Miami next week.


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