Saturday, February 23, 2013

Magical Cleveland Orchestra: Dvorak's New World Symphony

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") in E minor, op. 95
Encore: Dvorak Slavonic Dances
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor.

From my seat: Following the encore.
A few months ago, I took part in an interview session sponsored by Cleveland Foundation. One of the questions was "What makes the perfect concert?" It's a feeling -- an ever-so-rare feeling -- not unlike love: Your pulse quickens, time seems to stand still, and the not only does the world outside the hall cease to matter, it effectively ceases to exist. For me, it's about one concert a season. In a great season. With one of the world's best Orchestras. But it is also the concert that makes those that fall at the other end of the spectrum so worthwhile.

Tonight was that perfect concert.

As I sat overlooking the house from my perch in box 3, I couldn't help but to note the unusually lively atmosphere in a sold-out Severance hall. For a few moments one may have had the impression they had walked into an opulent sporting arena. For as boisterous as the house was before the music started, it was dead silent while the orchestra was in action.

Far from the manic convulsions associated with the conducting trade, Mr. Blomstedt is generally subtle; for the most part, if he were conducting w

Mr. Blomstedt is a generally subtle conductor. Far from the manic convulsions typically associated with the trade, if you removed the orchestra from his audience passersby may think it just a slight tick. The effect is that when expansive language draws out that much energy from the orchestra.

The Mozart was simply a piece of abstract beauty -- from the famous opening of the first movement to the more settled second and the precise surges of energy at the transition from the third to fourth movements.

For the abstraction in the Mozart, the imagery of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World is crystal clear. That piece is my favorite from the pre-1900 repertoire, and perhaps one I've heard most often. Tonight's rendition, however exposed subtleties in the piece I can't recall having heard in any of the live -- or recorded -- performances I've heard to date. Hearing the piece and the pulse that weaves its way through I imagine the American frontiers of the late 1800s and those of the populations who's native sounds are captured in the piece.

While listening to From the New World -- one of my favorite orchestral pieces -- I can't help but to imagine the setting of Frederic Edwin Church's Twilight in the Wilderness, painted only a few decades before Dvorak composed his musical postcard and one of my favorite pieces in the Cleveland Museum of Art's Collection  -- both invoke very similar feelings.

But if you weren't at this weekend's concerts (plus a matinee tomorrow) you missed a magical concert with a fantastic ensemble.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cleveland Orchestra: Herbert Blomstedt Conducts Beethoven's Seventh

Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 ("Sinfonia expansiva") (Ellie Dehn, soprano; Michael Kelly, baritone)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major l, Op. 92
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor

[I have to note that next Weekend, the Cleveland Orchestra is performing Dvorak's From the New World -- one of my favorite pieces in the orchestral repertoire]

Even before Cellist Tanya Ell presented Mr. Blomstedt with a bouquet during the ending ovations, it was clear that this Orchestra and Mr. Blomstedt share a special bond.

While Beethoven's seventh symphony was faultless and delightful to listen to, I didn't feel as effortlessly drawn to it as Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 3 which opened the program.

That piece, last played by the Orchestra two months before I was born in 1984 (29 years ago if you don't want to do the math), is the kind that makes you wonder why it isn't played more often. This was also one of the rare pieces where the Orchestra's musicians traditionally stoic expressions gave way to a palpable sense of enjoyment while playing the Sinfonia Espansiva.

The Sinfonia was an ever-changing array of emotions and ear-catching sounds: The first movement packs a conclusion that literally hit me in the chest. The second packed off-stage vocals, sounding far off and almost ephemeral in a chant without words pared with pastoral strings and what could be called "happy chirps" from the back of the orchestra (this was my favorite movement from the evening because of how ethereal the sum of the parts became). The third movement is a bit on the depressing side, being more solemn and almost bitten out, but that despair gives way. The fourth movement has the sound of an anthem with some nationalistic undertones.

Hopefully, it won't be another 30 years before the Cleveland Orchestra performs this piece a fourth time. (And while I'm putting in requests-- Copland's Appalachian Spring, please?)


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cleveland Orchestra: Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony

Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Rota: Trombone Concerto (Massimo La Rosa, trombone)
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111
Gianandrea Noseda, Conductor

After a run of full houses, it was a little surprising how noticeably sparse attendance at this, the first concert back from the Florida residency, was despite an admirable job of dressing the house*. I was also surprised at the rather lukewarm reception the program received; while it won't go down in the annals with particular note, there was nothing not to like.

Rachmaninoff's The Isle of  the Dead was a haunting march toward a darkness with a texture that captivated me while simultaneously dreading and wondering what that march would arrive at. About half way through the piece there was a strange harmonic that sounded like someone was engaged in a heated -- if muffled -- monologue outside the hall; the darkness parts briefly with hints of a blue sky.

The composer of the second piece on the program, Nino Rota, doesn't have the name recognition as some of his work -- the score for The Godfather II and the 1968 Romeo and Juliet love theme, and the trombone isn't the most popular concerto choice. Seeing thos piece on the program, and tending to think of the trombone as a rather harsh and blaring instrument (think the "adult" voices in Charlie Brown Christmas), I was a bit apprehensive. Putting that apprehension to rest, Massimo La Rosa's deft navigation of the piece finely illustrated how versatile the trombone can be. The second movement struck me as a tender waltz with the trombone a lover nuzzled in their partner's neck while taking the lead. For a total contrast the third movement, was light and airy, bouncy and toe tapping, like the freedom of a spring weekend day.

Closing out the program, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6 didn't evoke particularly vivid imagery but was still delightful to listen to and didn't feel nearly as long as the 45-minute run time listed in the program. The first movement seemed a subdued, almost barren, mood with the hints of a march.

While the first movement sounded a bit like a march, the second movement struck as if a highly nationalistic tune was buried under a dirge, leading to crying passion, and undoubtedly my favorite passages from the piece wherein a delicate music box lullaby emerges from the celesta and wafts over the orchestra.

The third movement would be an apt soundtrack for a wagon charging down a dusty country road, energetic and enthusiastic -- Richard Rodda's program notes use the word "bumptious" to refer to it, and that word is as apt as it is unique, before turning more "austere" and somber.

* (In the outside New York box office definition)