As they did in 2006, the Cleveland Orchestra came to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night for a concert sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society. After Washington, they will play a three-concert series at Carnegie Hall and then leave for an extended European tour. The Clevelanders were once arguably America's best orchestra and were always classed among the Big Five symphonic ensembles in the country, a placement that more and more people believe Cleveland has lost. That downward trend may be reversed eventually by their ultra-talented and relatively young music director, Franz Welser-Möst.
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Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, M. Brueggergosman, K. O'Connor, F. Lopardo, R. Pape, Cleveland Orchestra, F. Welser-Möst (October 2, 2007)
Welser-Möst has had a rocky career, being driven out of his post with the London Philharmonic and then running into critical trouble here in the U.S. One of his staunchest defenders among music critics has been Norman Lebrecht, who must have felt vindicated this summer when Welser-Möst was appointed Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, beginning in 2010. If there were issues for Welser-Möst relating to the Cleveland musicians or administation, they appear to have passed, because his contract there has been extended until 2012. Whatever else one might criticize, he has helped to put the Cleveland Orchestra back on disc, with a recently released live recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Slender, aristocratic, and in formal tails (as were all the men of the Cleveland Orchestra -- a nice touch), Welser-Möst led a strong performance, opening with Mozart's Symphony No. 28 in C major, K. 200. His slightly over-fast tempo in the first movement led to some smudges in the violin section's sixteenth notes. Overall, the strings seemed ponderous at times (perhaps there were too many of them?), making the brass and percussion sound recessed. The soft second movement showed a firm hand in control over the soft end of the dynamic spectrum, and the third movement had an aptly chosen tempo, just right for Allegretto.
In the past month, we have probably heard more of the work of John Adams in the area's major symphonic halls than in the entire history of Ionarts. His Guide to Strange Places, premiered in 2001 by the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, was a welcome discovery. A semi-autobiographical journey, based on memories from the composer's family vacation, the piece uses minimalistic repetition to suggest the pulse of travel, directing the listener through a landscape of odd colors and weird scenes. The section for belching low brass and comically loud percussion wallops was a particular high point, as was the Messiaen-like chirping of the woodwinds in a tittering chorus. At the loud moments, the Cleveland Orchestra had a regal fullness, with the brass almost terrifyingly powerful. Welser-Möst conducted the Adams work with a clear beat, without any of the unnecessary dancing on the podium we remarked on with Marin Alsop. If you rehearse it well, the orchestra's sound will do all the dancing.
The final piece was, regretfully, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor ("Pathétique," op. 74). My disinclination toward syrupy late Romantic music is well known, and it is frustrating to think that we might have heard instead one of the other pieces the Clevelanders are taking on the road, like Bruckner's ninth symphony or Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony with Bernarda Fink as mezzo-soprano soloist (no matter what Donald Rosenberg says), or another modern work like Ligeti's Lontano or Pintscher's Five Orchestral Pieces. But Tchaikovsky it was, and Welser-Möst played it to the hilt, with an attractively pulled rubato on the famous theme in the first movement and a true pppppp as the clarinet and bass clarinet spun that melody out to its conclusion. The graceful second movement was a dancelike 5/4, if slightly on the fast side, and not at all soupy. The third movement was at such a fast pace that the orchestra struggled slightly, but it led inexorably to an exciting ending. With almost no pause, to discourage applause, Welser-Möst launched into a completely different mood, a brilliantly contained fourth-movement lamento.
Robert Battey, Cleveland Orchestra Lives Up To Its Rep at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 17)
Anthony Tommasini, An Enigmatic Night at the Orchestra (New York Times, October 18)
The Cleveland Orchestra performs for three nights at Carnegie Hall (October 16 to 18) and embarks on an extensive European tour. The next visiting orchestras presented by WPAS are the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (with Yefim Bronfman, October 18) and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (with Julia Fischer, October 23).