Sunday, April 15, 2012

concert review: Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland is the least generally prestigious of the seven cities (including itself) whose orchestras San Francisco's is having to visit this year.1 The top-rank prestige of its orchestra is due primarily to its awesomely renowned former music director, George Szell, who lasted nearly a quarter of a century and died in harness in 1970.

Since then, how has Cleveland fared? Its current long-time music director, Franz Welser-Möst, whose hair makes him look from behind like Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka but without the hat, is quite controversial in some circles, including those of the former music critic for the leading Cleveland paper, who was fired for his unceasing negative reviews. (Were I in that position, I hope I'd have the financial courage to ask to be relieved of the regular duty, and only cover him occasionally. Any artist needs to be described by a variety of reviewers, and regularly reviewing something you hate that much is bad for the soul.) Naturally I was eager to hear for myself.

The Clevelanders played two of my favorite symphonies that are overshadowed by better-known ones by the same composer: Mendelssohn's Scotch2 and Shostakovich's Sixth.3 There's nothing wrong with the orchestra's fast music - indeed, Shostakovich's scherzo might have had a little more power if they'd slowed down a trifle; and yes, fans of old music styles, that was an accelerando in the middle of the already torn-paper-quick coda of the finale - but Cleveland's distinctive character lies in its playing of slow, quiet music. The attacks are supernally gentle, especially in the strings, and W-M takes contemplative passages as if the music had stopped to rest its weary feet in a convenient pond. This pool of stillness first made itself known in Mendelssohn's slow introduction, and reappeared when appropriate up to the end of Shostakovich's Largo, a hushed moment of magically pregnant tranquility.

Also on the program, Orion by Kaija Saariaho, a composer I hadn't heard previously in concert and hadn't taken to on record. This remains music I have no plans to cuddle up with, but I can see where it's going. A little too clearly, if anything: in this work, at least, Saariaho isn't up to anything fancy with structure. She builds her composition out of short phrases, each repeated in various ways several times before moving on to the next, related idea. Though this isn't at all mechanically done, it is predictable, and after a while you kind of get the point, but there's none of the rhythmic action the minimalists give you to groove on while you wait. The sound is dense and layered, mostly high-pitched, acquiring spice through clashing overtones. Undoubtably of more impact in the concert hall than in recording.

1. By this I mean no derogation of Cleveland. I know many fine people from there. I resided there myself for a while in early youth. But even though we lived near the symphony hall, my parents were too young and impecunious, too unestablished in society, and too busy with work and a small child to attend the then Szell-led orchestra, though they were regular listeners to the local classical radio station.
2. Nowadays usually called the Scottish, but in Mendelssohn's time Scotch was the proper adjective for the country as well as the whiskey.
3. And I'd just heard the Fifth the previous night. Were my succeeding week to include concerts with the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh, I would be even happier.

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