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A Gallant Evening

Severance Hall
01/13/2011 -  & January 14, 15, 2010
Richard Wagner : Overture to Tannhäuser
Robert Schumann : Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54
Richard Strauss : Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40

Radu Lupu (piano)
William Preucil (solo violin), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

F. Welser-Möst (© Peter Fischli)

Music director, Franz Welser-Möst, returned to the podium here for his first visit of 2011, but his familiarity with the orchestra and the chosen selections paid off in a seamless performance. While the audience welcomed him warmly, there was a wide range of emotions in the almost full hall, ranging from sonambulance to tears and generally crabby people who seemed to snap at perfect strangers over absolutely nothing. The rousing opening selection, the Overture to Tannhäuser is a concert piece that stands on it’s own, even if one knows nothing about the eponymous opera. The opening horns were eloquent, answered by the lower strings. Steadied by the conductor, the violins sounded clear and bright as the music danced between strings and woodwinds, with the brief violin solo, played by assistant concertmaster, Yoko Moore, a standout. As the piece wound to a close, the horns, again, were lovely, but the trombones that joined them sounded a bit strident and the volume escalated to an almost uncomfortable level.

While the stage was being reconfigured, my companion, who has heard the Cleveland Orchestra on several previous occasions commented with surprise that, “Tonight, the orchestra seemed to change, with a 'Germanic' sound, quite like the Vienna Philharmonic”, and as she discussed it with me, I agreed. This group works with whomever is directing them as few others do, which really enables them to successfully handle a wide variety of music within a single program.

The second selection was the Piano Concerto, the only one Schumann composed, guided by his wife, Clara, a virtuoso pianist who played the piece in concert numerous times. Radu Lupu, the Romanian soloist, made his American debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1972 and has performed here more than 40 times, the last time being two years ago. Things looked different the moment the stage was set. Podium positioning, to the soloist’s left and in the center of the piano, his back completely to the instrument, left Mr. Lupu entirely on his own, and in truth, Maestro Welser-Möst didn’t appear to give him a second glance from the time he sat down until the end of the piece. The entire tone of the concerto was loose and relaxed, with Mr. Lupu sitting in a regular chair, not on a bench, and dressed in solid black. During the rests in the piece, he sat back, dangled his arms and looked around at the members of the orchestra. His playing was quiet, his hands close to the keyboard, almost like he was sitting down to run through a few etudes. Given the lyrical tone of the piece, the style worked and served to draw the listener in so as not to miss a single note.

Ein Heldenleben has a long history with this orchestra, dating from 1928 to last season’s Blossom Festival and tour. Few pieces from the late Romantic period inspire as much controversy as this one. Strauss, at age 34, was described as an egotist for portraying himself as a hero, but he neatly countered by saying that he “found himself as interesting a subject for study as Nero or Napoleon”! The tone poem requires a very large orchestra and the sound produced ranged from piquant to a deafening triple forte. All six movements-although the piece is played through without pause-were listed for the audience's edification, despite the composer’s request that the names be omitted from the scores. The straight E-flat major tonality vied throughout with odd tonalities and disappearing key centers. The highlight of the piece was the melodic violin solo of the third section, played by the orchestra’s concertmaster, William Preucil. Beginning gently as a long, accompanied cadenza, it foreshadows a theme that will be fully developed later. Mr. Preucil was a master of his instrument, always playing in perfect control, the double-stops anchoring and grounding the line. He took his own pace, while the orchestra waited, ending with pianissimo notes exquisite in their perfection. The “Battlefield” music ranged from marshal to jarring with the sweet sound of the strings getting swallowed up by the trumpet fanfares. Strauss “borrowed” from himself in the fifth section, as we heard snippets from Also sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote, and the opera Guntram, and two of his songs, Befreit and Traum durch die Dämmerung. Sometimes they’re played so that each can be clearly determined and at other times, they overlap in simultaneous layers. The final movement begins with a quick, descending E-flat triad, and then a new theme featuring harp, English horn, bassoon and strings. Previous themes buffet against it and once again, the music swells followed by the English horn in a pastoral interlude (this expressively played by Robert Walters). We then hear the triad develop into the theme hinted at in the earlier violin cadenza and the final brass fanfare. One either loves or hates this work, and judging by the number of audience members on their feet, the former was the overwhelming consensus.

Suzanne Torrey



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