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Running the Gamut

Severance Hall
01/06/2011 -  & January 7, 8, 2011
Jörg Widmann: Con brio
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Horn Concerto No.2 in E-flat major, K417
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 (“Pathétique”) in B minor, Opus 74

Richard King (Horn)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (Conductor)

C. von Dohnányi (© Andreas Garrels)

Folks who braved heavy snow and slippery roads on this first Thursday of the new year were amply rewarded for their efforts with a varied program, wonderfully played and brilliantly conducted. Christoph von Dohnányi was the sixth Music Director of The Cleveland Orchestra from 1984 to 2002 and became the Music Director Laureate in 2002. He now guest conducts around the world, but his close affinity with this group was quite evident tonight in pieces ranging from new music through the Classical period and into the Romantic.

Jörg Widmann, a young German composer, is the Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow of the Cleveland Orchestra for 2009-10 and 2010-11. His opening piece, the concert overture Con brio, lived up to its title, which means “with brilliance/dash/vivacity”, as used in Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies, and was originally conceived when Widmann was writing a concert opener for a program of those two symphonies. This seated a smaller group of musicians made up of 2 each of horns, trumpets, bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flutes (who also doubled on piccolos), an abbreviated string section and 1 very overworked percussionist. Although at times, the trumpets played what one thought to be a traditional fanfare, things would quickly morph into an odyssey for breathy-sounding woodwinds, with sounds that were far from the norm. I could swear that I saw the clarinet players slapping their hands against the bells of their instruments but I have no idea what types of mutes the trumpets were using when I began to fear that one or both of the men were about to explode from reversed pressure! The anticipation of what was to come next built as the frenetic pace alternated with swooping passages that looped back into staccato phrasing. Then, section by section, the music just simply disappeared, leaving you wondering what just happened, but in a nice sort of way!

Then, the abbreviated orchestra accompanied Richard King in Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.2 in E-Flat major, one of two of Mozart’s horn concerti to omit bassoons and to also include ripieno horns. The lyrical orchestral introduction to the Allegro led right into the brisk series of 16th note scales for horn, played adroitly and securely as they lengthened into the more legato passages. In the Andante, Mr. King clearly appreciated the firm support he received from the first violins, the song-like melody meshing well with the strings. The last section, the Rondo, opened with the more traditional “hunting horn” fanfare and melted seamlessly into the more peaceful second theme. The tempo accelerates rapidly and the concerto finishes at a gallop. Richard King, the principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra has been with the ensemble since the age of 20 (1988), showed his virtuosity throughout the concerto, playing with ease as he negotiated the quick sections and with lovely, singing tone in the slower parts. His compatriots on the stage applauded him as warmly, as did the audience.

During the intermission a goodly number of the audience went to see if the snow was still falling thick and fast-it was-so it was a tribute to the skill of Maestro Dohnányi and the orchestra that the hall remained full for the second half. Tchaikovsky could have written and left no finer epitaph for himself than this piece which touches upon every emotion and leaves us all feeling as if we’ve been shown the delights of heaven and the depths of hell. While I have heard it played by many different orchestras under just as many batons, this evening’s performance was a standout event. Conducting without a score, Dohnányi took complete charge, from the opening of the Adagio and the somber notes of the double basses and the mournful solo bassoon to the entrance of the violas. He insisted upon strength from the second violins and violas while steadying the first violins and accenting the tympani. As the violins developed the first theme, the oboe and the flute shared a flirtatious passage, other instruments joining in, giving way to the clarinet and the bass clarinet. The large group suddenly exploded in rage, with furious outbursts in the strings and brass and the orchestra handled the abrupt transition back to misery and finally to quiet contentment beautifully. During the two middle movements, the strings again shone as did the woodwinds. Unfortunately, the mood was briefly shattered when some of the audience became confused and broke into applause at the end of the third movement. Why does that tend to happen so often during performances of this piece in the US, as opposed to other countries? Is it because the people hear a fleeing similarity to the 1812 Overture, to which they are treated by some musical group every Fourth of July? Honestly, I wish orchestras would insert a caveat against this action in bold type in every program! The famous Adagio finale was so amazingly played that I found myself holding my breath, taking a quick, catch-breath only on the phrase change. Here, the first and second violin sections were equally strong, which is so often not the case, as they took turns playing the notes of the main theme. Twice, things build to a climax and then the tam-tam softly played its only note and the always strong lower brass section was used very effectively before the theme resolved to its tonic minor and meandered off.

This symphony is so well known that most of the orchestra members could have played it on their own, but they all paid close attention to Maestro Dohnányi as he painted a picture using notes instead of pigments. This was a true artist, in love with his canvas and using the orchestra as sections and as individuals to bring the music to life for us. Usually, the Pathétique leaves me feeling sad and drained, but this performance had me delighting in the beauty of life as we walked out into the snowy evening.

The Cleveland Orchestra

Suzanne Torrey



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