Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall:
Hindemith, Strauss & Berlioz (September 27)
by Daniel Hathaway
Though the tickets and publicity shouted “Berlioz!”, some of the finest moments in Thursday evening's Cleveland Orchestra concert under Franz Welser-Möst at Severance Hall came before the Symphonie fantastique. It's fine to hear Hindemith played anywhere these days, but his Kammermusik No. 1 (for small orchestra) that opened the program was a breath of fresh air from the early 20s by a composer in his twenties. And at the other end of the age spectrum, Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto, written after the composer had turned eighty, provided a sweetly lyrical vehicle for soloist Frank Rosenwein to show off both his lungs and his vocal qualities before Berlioz's crazed reveries claimed the rest of the evening.
Scored for a string quintet with double bass, a quartet of winds (flute/piccolo, clarinet, bassoon and trumpet), accordion, piano and a single percussionist, Kammermusik No. 1 begins with a sassy, urbane burst of energy (lots of fancy mallet work from Jacob Nissly) and ends so abruptly that you wanted to laugh (some did). Subsequent movements got incrementally longer. Clarinet and flute (then clarinet and oboe, and finally all three) entwined in expressive counterpoint in the third, and everything broke loose in the finale. After lively solos by Joshua Smith (piccolo), Joela Jones (piano) and Lyle Steelman (trumpet), the finale ended cheekily with a siren and wood block. Welser-Möst and the musicians created a tight ensemble that played with wit and precision. Alas, the accordion was mostly inaudible.
Strauss wrote his Oboe Concerto after a chance meeting with an American GI assigned to the Bavarian town of Garmisch at the end of World War II. The GI happened to be the principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, who put the bug in Strauss's ear. The concerto was completed in 1945 and its American premiere was given, not by John de Lancie, but by an oboist named Mitchell Miller (aka “Mitch”) in 1948. It's in three sections that form one continuous movement, and though mostly gentle and lyrical, the piece demands a lot in terms of stamina and phrasing from the soloist.
Frank Rosenwein brought silken tone and a superbly expressive presence to his role as he held extended conversations with the orchestra and other solo voices in the ensemble. Sometimes placid, sometimes urgent, sometimes sprightly, he shaped his lines adroitly and his ability to “circular breathe” (like Kenny G.) permitted him to shape elaborate and seemingly endless phrases. Welser-Möst and the reduced orchestra matched Rosenwein's every nuance with lucid and attentive playing. Too bad this work has been so infrequently performed at Severance Hall. Rosenwein now owns it.
On Thursday evening, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was every inch the orchestral showpiece its composer had in mind when he set out to capture an emotional obsession fueled by opium and narrated in five vivid scenes including general reveries, a ball, a pastoral scene in the countryside, a march to the gallows and a witches' sabbath.
Welser-Möst set up a dreamy soundscape at the beginning and let the idée fixe theme surge along with an appealing breeziness. Surges also graced the waltz that followed and eventually barreled into a frenzy. Robert Walters set up a charming country scene with his spacious English horn solo (answered by an unidentified offstage oboist). The bassoon section was predictably excellent in its varied roles (treble and bass) in the march, which also brought the fiery brass into full play. The witches' sabbath was eerie and evocative at the outset, later becoming diabolical thanks to the keening of the E-flat clarinet (Daniel McKelway), and ominous with the tolling of two big bells (Jacob Nissly) and the blaring of a pair of tubas.
Oscar Wilde quipped that “nothing succeeds like excess”, which would describe many performances of Symphonie Fantastique. If Franz Welser-Möst's interpretation sounded slightly reined in to some listeners, perhaps this was an occasion when the music rather than the program became the center of attention. On those terms, it worked very well indeed.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 2, 2012
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