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Pictures of Life

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/04/2011 -  
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Toshio Hosokawa: Woven Dreams (New York Premiere)
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, opus 40

The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst

F. Welser-Möst (© Lisa DeJong)

The Cleveland Orchestra belies the platitude that America’s heartland was created for grains and cows. This orchestra is less than a century old, but its conductors, including Lorin Maazel and Christoph von Dohnányi are in the highest pantheon, and its present conductor Franz Welser-Möst, is yearning for that position

But the Cleveland’s character was shaped by George Szell, their iconic conductor for three decades. True, he was a dictator of the old school, who would be considered antediluvian today. But Szell was legendary, because he was either a virtuoso or proficient on every single instrument in the orchestra.

When he told his players how to play a passage, they listened. And while I doubt if many of his original players are around today, the orchestra has that perfection of tone, and some brilliant first chair players who give it a galvanizing effect.

True, last night the horns were not in best shape. But that was offset by a dark and lovely opening Faun flute by Joshua Smith, and a violin solo by William Preucil that was different than any I’ve ever heard in Heldenleben.

They also have a conductor who has been controversial in Cleveland (the newspaper critic was fired because he habitually carped at the man), but can wave a mighty baton no matter what the interpretation.

That was certainly true in Strauss’s last tone-poem, his autobiography at the age of 35. (The program notes tried to say that A Hero’s Life was not about himself, but don’t believe it!)

The opening was not taken with Strauss’s direction of “lively and moving” (lebhaft bewegt) but with violent, tumultuous soaring-swooping moves which never stopped until the second section. Those who followed Strauss’s detailed story would intimate that Welser-Möst wasn’t depicting a hero as much as a fearful revengeful god. Others would simply see it as a stormy start to a stormy symphony.

The chattering “critics” movement–(what one would call the “talking heads” today) was fervent, since Welser-Möst’s Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s critic was kicked out because of this piece. But the highlight was William Preucil’s playing of the Hero’s lover.

When one hears this as a child, it is simply a delightful violin solo. Now we know that Strauss meant every measure as tickling and foreplay, jesting, feeling, hugging, rejecting, climax and (in non-religious terms) the Second Coming) Mr. Preucil made every measure count. His violin acted the woman. One pictured her and imagined her thanks to his uninhibited playing.

With the finale, one realized how dedicated the conductor is to this work, for that finale, like the opening of Zarathustra was simply radiant.

Written five years before Heldenleben, was its antithesis, Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. Richard Strauss would have written Faun with galumphing, jumping and humping, as well as deer tics. (Bassoon and oboe making staccato attacks.) Debussy’s impressions were cool and calm, and Mr. Welser-Möst gave a meticulous, not memorable performance.

T. Hosokawa (© Schott Promotions/Christopher Peters)

The concert had a third picture-music, Woven Dreams, by the noted Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. The dream was specifically the composer’s image of his own life in the womb. Not only specific, but with Strauss-like punctiliousness, he described in the notes everything from the heartbeat to the “fetus unified with its mother in the amniotic fluid” to the “compulsion to go out into the world.”

I wish that I could have listened without knowing this, but probably it helped, for this was an intriguing piece. Mr. Hosokawa started with a single note (B flat) in the orchestra, then, like a cell multiplying, the note separated, the music tingled more, it erupted into storms (Mommy eating too much garlic?), and then bells showing the child coming into life.

It was a beautiful tapestry, fluctuating, wavering, moving. One can conceive of Woven Dreams (pre-life), Heldenleben (life) and Death and Transfiguration (after-life) on one concert If played by this still shining orchestra, mortality and eternity could be aesthetically unified.

Harry Rolnick



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