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Strings Attached

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/27/2000 -  
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 3

Cleveland Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnanyi (conductor)

Somewhere between the death of George Szell and the present moment the Cleveland Orchestra lost a good deal of its sheen when the string section descended to its current level of yeomanlike but uninspired sound and dragged this first level ensemble down to a still very respectable but not exceptional plateau of competent performance standards. Last season I heard a wonderful Mahler 9 restrained from the sublime by this prosaic sonic impression and so it was with some trepidation that I attended a concert featuring two pieces which rely almost exclusively on the nimbleness and aural gloss of strings alone. True to its current form, the ensemble presented a pallid account of the works and never excited or challenged its listeners to experience the underlying tension and frisson that make this music so incredibly vital.

Perhaps it is the retirement of most of Szell’s Eastern European brethren and their replacement with a rather young crowd of fiddlers that accounts for this major step down. The Ives piece, only four minutes in length, was well enough played but consisted of only some thin chordal passages brilliantly contrasted with the wild flutes and solo trumpet asking and perhaps attempting to answer the questions inherent in the concept of the music of the spheres. A great and still virtually undiscovered piece but not difficult to perform well (I heard some junior school children present a creditable performance some years ago). Kudos to von D for programming this thought provoking work.

The Bartok however was a disaster. For a Hungarian, Maestro seems to have little feeling for this complexly rhythmic music. His usual suspects were less mysterious and more downright screechy throughout, producing an unnecessarily ugly sound which did little to ingratiate this style with the extremely conservative audience. I heard several intermission comments which were very negative, however they were directed at the work rather than the performance. This seemed highly unfair. Further, von D did little with the percussion, relegating it to a back room role, and totally destroyed the marvelously precipitatingly cascading ending by inexplicably stopping in the middle of this normally thrilling phrase as if to catch his breath. The roller coaster simply chugged down a straight and boring path and we left the ride unsatisfied.

There is really no point in doing Beethoven if you have nothing to say. The only positive comment I can make for von D.’s approach last evening is that he chose to excise a good deal of the long winded ending and we were thus able to have a little less pedestrianism with which to deal. The normally extremely moving Marcia funebre was as cold as Napoleon’s army on its way to Moscow and I noticed several patrons catching 40 winks when they had the chance. Cleveland is scheduled to open the season at Carnegie next year. Hopefully a full summer off will rejuvenate them a bit. Maestro is leaving after next season and turning the helm over to Welser-Moest. Perhaps he can restore some of Cleveland’s past glories, if only he shows up once in a while.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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