Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cleveland Orchestra: Joshua Bell plays Beethoven

Widmann: Lied [Song] (for Orchestra)
Bartok: Dance Suite
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (Joshua Bell, violin)
Franz Welser-Most, conductor.

 The Cleveland Orchestra announced earlier this week that it had broken previous ticket sales records -- and that trend continues with a weekend full of performances featuring The Orchestra with Joshua Bell, including tonight's completely-standing room and all--sold out concert.

The audience response to the Widmann was rather tepid, as was Mr. Pruecil and Mr. Welser-Most's initial appearance on stage*. Though historically I have been at best cool if not frigid to Widmann's compositions I rather liked this piece. A single movement running about 24 minutes in this performance, it had a sense of dark murkiness not unlike the fog hovering over a swamp under a full moon. Other highlights included a somber dance-like scene and a couple particularly bold, almost explosive, outbursts of pizzicato. It should be noted that it seemed the audience was particularly restless before, during, and after this piece, including a rather loud conversation that caused the maestro to delay the start -- well worth it given the very subtle nature of the first few bars

The second piece on the program would turn out to be both the shortest and my favorite from the evening -- the six movements of Bela Bartok's Dance Suite, played without pause, amount to only about fifteen minutes of music. In that brief time the texture was varied from a heavy ("Russian" and "Soviet" were the first two words to enter my mind) and but still lyrical sense, to a tender embrace first pulled in by the strings and recriporcated by flutes. The "heaviness" gives way to a flighty, light, feeling -- including what I want to call a peasant song, again coming out of the winds -- with a sage but weary elder in the form of solo viola.

Violinist Joshua Bell was clearly a major draw for this weekend's concerts, and while both the orchestra and soloist did a magnificent job and made both the music and interaction seem effortless, but I didn't find the piece nearly as captivating as I did Bartok's Dance Suite. Though generally gently lyrical and flowing with an elegant intensity with some festive highlights, it generally felt eternal. I'm wondering if part of that eternal feeling may have been exacerbated by what seemed like overly rounded edges in the Beethoven.

All in all though it was definitely a concert worth hearing


*- I think for the first time I was the first to begin applauding Mr. Pruecil's stage entrance before the tune -- I can't say I've ever felt quite that awkward.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Heights Arts Close Encounters: Bach to Piccolo House Concert

Bach: Sonata II for Violin Solo in A minor, BVW 1003*
Villa-Lobos: Assobio A Jato ("The Jet Whistle") %^
Dick: Fire's Bird%
Prokofieff: Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56&#
(*- Isabel Trautwein, violin; %- Mary Kay Fink, picolo and flute; ^- Tanya Ell, cello; &- Katherine Bormann, violin; Ying Fu, violin)
At the Barrie Residence, Cleveland Heights.

[Disclosure: I have served on the Heights Arts board since November, however my opinions are my own]

The third installment in a weekend full of music lead us to a Heights Arts house concert at the Barrie's beautiful home in Cleveland Heights for a varied program featuring Cleveland Orchestra musicians in a particularly intimate and informal setting.

Opening the program, Isabel Trautwein gave a thoroughly interesting introduction to Bach's Sonata II, including examples of some of the building blocks used, and a copy of a thoroughly terrifying page from the sonata's autograph. As terrifying as the score may appear, Ms. Trautwein's performance was anything but, certainly ranking among my favorite from the Heights Arts series*. I kept my eyes closed for most of the piece and just enjoyed the sounds; I occasionally had to open my eyes just to convince myself that only a single musician and instrument were at play; my ears were saying otherwise, particularly in the inner two movements.

Heiter Villa-Lobos' Assobio A Jato introduced a newcomer to Heights Arts concerts: Mary Kay Fink on an impressive flute with Tanya Ell's wonderful cello to bring a little bit of the warmth of Brazil to Cleveland Heights in January. While Ms. Fink offered a sense of airy weightlessness from her flute, Ms. Ell's cello anchored the piece; particularly in the second movement it was easy to imagine lying on a verdant hillside on a warm day staring up at clouds floating by in the blue sky. The piece's title -- translated as The Jet Whistle -- refers to a sound late in the piece that Mr. Villa-Lobos said reminded him of a jet engine.

Our new guest added a new instrument with the third piece on the program -- a piece that Ms. Fink commissioned from a mentor, an for solo open-hole piccolo. Ms. Fink gave a very interesting introduction to the piece as well as a quick lesson in circular breathing, but it was hard not to notice the width of the score behind her -- "Like many modern composers [Dick] doesn't do page turning" and "If you don't like this kind of music at least it's not very long" -- this is the first time I've measured a score as three and one-half music stands. The piece featured impressive technique but there was a weird harmonic at times, almost like notes were reflecting off the back of my ear and bouncing around in the ear canal, and the effect was disconcerting, almost like being under water and hearing someone talk. It was unique, if a bit atonal.

The last piece on the program featured Ms. Bormann and Mr. Fu -- two Cleveland Orchestra musicians recently granted tenure (congratulations!) playing Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins. Although the sonata checks in with four movements it seemed to be over in the blink of an eye with a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement. From the relaxing andante cantabile, to the energetic allegro with a feeling a bit like the hard metals of the industrial revolution, back again to slow with commodo (quasi Allegretto) was more tender and transitory. In the final movement, as with those that preceded it,  the two musicians virtually functioned as one, delivering a final burst of energy to conclude the afternoon's performances.


*- [Footnote intentionally omitted]

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cleveland Orchestra: Garrick Ohlsson Plays Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 (Garrick Ohlsson, piano)
Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93
Franz Welser-Most, conductor

The second in a musical trifecta of a weekend, or the meat of a classical sandwich bookended with chamber works, I was looking forward to this evening's return of the Cleveland Orchestra to Severance Hall well before last night's ChamberFest gala introduced me to Garrick Ohlsson in a more intimate setting. But after that gala I was particularly looking forward to the concert.

The first piece on the program was Mr. Ohlsson's riveting performance with the Orchestra of Tchaikovsky's 2nd piano concerto, and while it didn't conjure the imagery of extended scenes to the extent of last night, rather very brief -- and sometimes diametrically opposed -- vignettes of brief scenes, it was nonetheless compelling. Last night I was seated directly opposite of Mr. Ohlsson, where I could clearly see the intensity of his playing through his facial expressions, but I couldn't see his handiwork.

Tonight I had the good fortune of occupying the front of Box 3, one of my favorite seats in the hall, where I had an amazing view of Mr. Ohlson's rather large hands fluttering across the keyboard with impressive precision and the result was a wonderful balance between both the orchestra and soloist; the third movement was an impressive run of excited energy and, I'm sure, contributed to the level of ovation from the nearly sold-out audience.

Following intermission, the only other piece on the program was Shostakovitch's weighty 10th symphony. While the first movement is a little slow and restrained for my tastes -- perhaps best summed as bleak as a Cleveland winter -- the unbounding energy charging forward in the second made the wait well worth it. The program notes make reference to a runaway train, but in the orchestra's performance kept all wheels attached and firmly on track for the musical thrill ride. The third movement allowed both audience and musicians a bit of a rest to catch our collective breaths. The fourth movement left me a little wanting, but I can't put my finger on why. It was the only question mark in an otherwise wonderful concert.


ChamberFest Cleveland: A Gala to Benefit

Brahms: Rhapsody in B minor, Op. 79*
Brahms: Allegro appassionato from Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 120*^
Franck: Allegretto poco mosso from Sonata in A major for violin and piano.*%
Chopin: Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60*
Scriabin: Etude Op. 2 No. 1*
Scriabin: Two Poems, Op. 63*
Scriabin: Etude OP. 42 No. 5*
Bartok: Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano*^%
*- Garrick Ohlsson, Piano; ^- Franklin Cohen, Clarinet; Diana Cohen, Violin
At Canterbury Golf Club, Shaker Heights.

It's been about a month since the last Cleveland Orchestra concert -- and since I've been burning the candle at both ends (and sometimes in the middle) with work, I've enjoyed the quiet time. I return to Severance Hall tomorrow night, but tonight was the magical Gala Concert to benefit ChamberFest Cleveland, entering its second season. Long-time readers of my blog know my appreciation for the talents of the Cohen family, and arrick Ohlsson contributed wonderfully to a flawless evening.

While the piano used for this evening's performance was not the largest, Garrick Ohlsson dominated the room and the performance, starting with the bouquet of fragrant notes that overflowed the room like the audience assembled for the performance. Brahms's Rhapsody in B minor was filled with tension and release like a passionate romance -- from a fiery embrace to a quiet walk in seclusion.

Franklin Cohen joined Garricck Ohlsson for the Allegro appassionato movement from Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 2 and the sensation shifted from one of romance to one of  a dinner between long-lost friends telling the same story with a slightly different line -- and it seemed like Mr. Cohen and Mr. Ohlsson were completely at ease with each other. That ease, it turns out, may be attributable to the two musicians growing up in the same town and attending Julliard with only two years between them.

Diana Cohen traded places with her father for Cesar Franck's Sonata in A Major and I found the combination of the light and lofty notes from her violin an interesting contrast to the grounded, earthy sounds of the piano, which combined with this weekend's fine weather left me imagining a balloon (the violin) traversing the countryside (the  piano) -- until the violin gets caught in a tree, and after some anxious playing, breaks free.

After three pieces filled with imagery, Chopin's Barcarolle in F sharp major was beautiful solely from the notes rising above the piano and filling the room; at one point I looked to my left at Rachel -- engrossed in the music -- and couldn't readily determine which was more beautiful.

Mr. Ohlsson provided a fascinating and engaging conversation with the audience where he discussed Scarbin in the context of Chopin, and got sufficiently excited to warrant an insertion from Scrabin's early period -- Opus 2 Number 1 -- over the objection of none of the asembled group. The two poems left me somewahat wondering, but the pianist's comment at the end captures it better than anything I could have: "Do you find it remarkable that 100 years later, this musicstill sounds new somehow?"

The last piece on the program were the three movements from Bartok's Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano -- a peice that Messers Cohen and Ohlsson first played together at Lincoln Center some 45 years ago while students in New York -- Mr. Ohlsson reportedly has the original music with Mr. Cohen's name and childhood address stamped on it. The emotions evoked ranged from the meandering, uncertanty with stormy rage of the first movement, to foreboding in the second movemnt, and an intense, boncy jaunt through city traffic -- with hints of the jazz era -- at the conclusion.