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No Mistake on That Lake: Cleveland Orchestra Shines in D.C.

The Cleveland Orchestra was - and might still be - the crown jewel among the American orchestras. Although no longer as domineering of the American cultural scene as during the time of George Szell's leadership (union rules made recording virtually impossible for many years; hopefully the most recent rule changes might see "ClevO" back on disc more often), they are still instantly recognizable as an orchestra of special rank. At least they were last Sunday at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall.

Effectively opening WPAS's 2006/2007 season, they delivered a Dvořák Fifth Symphony that disarmed and charmed from the first notes on. Franz Welser-Möst, at 46 well on the young side for a maestro of one of the world's best orchestras, might face a stiff, if not hostile, press (as he did during his successful but troubled spell with the London Phil. from 1990 to 1996). That the Cleveland Plain Dealer has a monopoly on opinion-in-print (in the form of Donald Rosenberg) surely does not help. But there was nothing in the Washington performances that hinted at lack of quality or discontent on either side on or in front of the podium.

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Dvořák 5, 7-9 / Kertesz / LSO

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"Prague Symphony" / Bélohlávek

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La Mer / Boulez / ClevO

The first movement, Allegro, ma non troppo, of the symphony was light and soft, warm and detailed at once, nuanced and extraordinarily well balanced. Here, as in the other three movements (Andante con moto, Scherzo: Allegro scherzando, Finale: Allegro molto) the homogenous sound was subtly convincing in the manner of a much-liked figure of authority who speaks in a sonorous, calm voice without ever needing to raise his voice to command attention.

Particularly delightful was the nimble and gentle brass that worked more effectively by way of understatement than blaring and blazing about could have ever accomplished. Even though they hinted at their enormous potential for noise in the Finale, they sounded like superb chamber players throughout: smooth and yet rhythmical and always at attention.

That this all came to bear in the Fifth of Dvořák's symphonies multiplied the joy. Rarely played in concert, it deserves every bit of exposure it can get, easily holding up against its two successors... and with the freshness that an Eighth and especially the overplayed Ninth just can't match, it makes for much greater enjoyment than those workhorses, too.

Following Dvořák with Mozart (Symphony no. 38, "Prague") and ending on the sea-salt flavored note of Debussy's La Mer gave opportunity for the orchestra to show off its versatility and ability to switch from gayly tip-toeing around a Mozart score to gliding and twisting through the hues and moods of Debussy.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Cleveland Orchestra Top-Notch Under Welser-Moest (Washington Post, October 10)

Tim Smith, Cleveland's stellar orchestra takes a detour to D.C. (Baltimore Sun, October 10)

T. L. Ponick, Cleveland at the KenCen (Washington Times, October 11)

For experimentation's sake I listened to the second half of the program from the chorus seats behind the orchestra facing the conductor. The change in perception may not be quite as pronounced as I expected - but well noticable all the same: the strings on the left (from the conductor's point of view - violins or first violins, depending on the seating arrangement) now sound far more delicate, providing a much thinner sound-carpet from which the other orchestral voices emerge. The first two rows of wind instruments are predicably more prominent (including all kinds of extraneous clicking, huffing, puffing noises) while all the strings in the center and on the right (violas, celli) were at their usual strength.

Given the unburdened Dvořák, jaunty and feathery Mozart might have been expected - but under Welser-Möst's steadfast and matter-of-fact baton, the result was more of the sturdy, beefy variety... not at all inappropriate for the "Prague Symphony" with a sound harking back to a more traditional (as opposed to "HIP") way of playing Mozart. Broad-shouldered (but never limpid or lacking touches of delicacy), its finale (Presto) was particularly pleasing. The acoustic in the chorus seats did nothing to enhance Mozart, though.

In La Mer, rather than subtracting from the experience, the chorus seating offered an aural vantage point. The work gained from the immediacy of the sound and the audible details in the score, both in loud and soft passages. The distinct shifts from the left to the right sides in this work get lost in the back of the Concert Hall - and too far up front it's difficult to hear the far side at all. Behind the orchestra, however, the music gained much in evocative power. Apart from sounding good, the Cleveland Orchestra continued to distinguish itself through its cohesion, warmth, and color; a consummately high standard of playing and interpreting works which is enough to enthuse and rave about it for all those who live on weekly NSO fare. Perhaps it is not enough for Cleveland ears to whom this level of playing is merely the standard from which they wish to be further inspired. Perhaps they feel better to know that we wish to be so lucky as to call their grievances our own - and note that in Welser-Möst they may not have the most explosive conductor, but a sublime custodian of quality.

The next visiting orchestra (apart from the Kirov and András Schiff's Cappella Andrea Barca) that WPAS brings to town will be the London Philharmonic, then, finally, with Kurt Masur - on November 29th.