Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cleveland Orchestra: Saint-Saens Organ Symphony

Barber: Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato's Symposium) (Peter Otto, violin)
Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 ("Organ Symphony") in C minor, Op. 78 (Joela Jones, organ)
Marin Alsop, conductor.

I spent most of today alternating between putting my house in order for the party I'm hosting tomorrow and fitting in some painful (to the ear, not physically) but much needed violin practice, so my trip to Severance Hall this evening was a welcome respite.

The first piece on the program and my unqualified favorite of the evening and one of the most enjoyable of the season thus far, Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1 is a single continuous piece with four sections (It didn't sound any different than a four-movement piece played without pause, the labeling seems a semantic exercise). The piece began with a dramatic introduction and continued engagingly delightfully quickly until reaching the third section (adante tranquillo) where the music took a turn from bright and somewhat agitated to tranquil where the oboe laid in a soft bed of strings, before the piece ended with something that sounded vaguely familiar.

Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah") was on the program at the first Cleveland Orchestra concert I attended--one of the things that got me hooked on classical--so I was eagerly looking forward to his Serenade. I didn't feel the same connection to Serenade, though it was splendidly played by Peter Otto, First Associate Concertmaster. The five movements build upon each other and are all dominated by Mr. Otto's violin. If connecting to Plato's The Symposium, one almost gets the sense of the violin as speaker and the string orchestra as a quiet audience.

The second movement, struck me at first as a bit solemn then cheeky features a passage where it seems as if Mr. Otto's instrument was asking a question being answered by the harp. The third movement seemed the shortest of the five and was quite excited and punctuated with musical exclamation points. The fourth movement returned to a lonely feeling: As if it would be perfect music for a cinematic scene with the heroine sitting in the edge of a bed crying and the orchestra sweeps over when the the soloist stood idle. The fifth movement is where the orchestra finally seems to awake and for the first time overpowers the soloist.

During a conversation with a patron I asked if they had heard the Organ Symphony prior to this weekend's concerts: "I've heard some truly awful renditions and it was nice to hear it in the spirit that was intended" was the answer. Played in two movements that both span a variety of tempo notations for the majority of the piece the organ either idle or unobtrusive and was well-woven into the musical fabric. In fact, the first time I noticed Ms. Jones' Organ was midway through the first movement there the organ seemed to slowly awake with two quiet, layered, noted and then a long sustained rumble. The orchestra was passionate. The second moment, likewise, was well underway before the organ was noticed -- but when the organ was noticed it practically screamed and its presence was impossible to ignore (perhaps the one instrument that can out-volume the timpani)


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