by Daniel Hathaway
If planning an orchestral season is like assembling a vast jigsaw puzzle, The Cleveland Orchestra’s program on Saturday, April 2 felt as though it might have been put together from the leftover pieces after everything else had fallen neatly into place.
Anthony Cheung’s Lyra, Thomas Adès’s violin concerto Concentric Paths (with Leila Josefowicz), and orchestral excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung are all fine and interesting pieces in their own right. But like uncomfortable cocktail party guests who have never met before, they didn’t seem to share many common topics for conversation.
Cheung, the ninth Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, is at work on his first Cleveland Orchestra piece, to debut on May 18 and 20 of 2017. His Lyra on Saturday’s program was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, who premiered it under Alan Gilbert in June of 2014.
The piece is Cheung’s orchestral meditation on the Orpheus legend, and its point of departure is Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, a work some think is based on Orpheus’s musical conversation with the Furies. Subscribing to that theory, Cheung tips his hat to Beethoven at the outset of Lyra by having the harp strum the opening chord of the concerto. (Pianists wanting to make the connection with Orpheus’s lyre could begin the concerto by arpeggiating that chord.)
Cheung draws on a large orchestra with a vast complement of percussion. Some winds (one oboe, one clarinet, and one bassoon) are required to tune a quarter-tone below normal, and pre-recorded tracks of non-Western strummed instruments — as well as what Cheung calls a “mash-up” of half a dozen electronically manipulated recordings of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo — add an eerie haze to the live orchestral texture.
That texture glistens with imaginative writing. Alternating dreamy, amorphous music with rhythmic episodes, Lyra is both spellbinding and about five minutes too long in its middle section. The ending is particularly haunting with its halo of tangled electronic voices and woozy violin and horn solos.
Though Adès wrote his Concentric Paths for another soloist, Leila Josefowicz has made the piece her own. On Saturday evening, she scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of the violin — Adès avoids using the middle range of the instrument — in a completely riveting performance.
Josefowicz chatted back and forth rhythmically with the percussion in the first movement, sang recitative-like lines against trumpets in the second — which soon turns sinister and dark — and disarmingly fiddled her way through the burlesque, dancelike tunes of the finale. Her impressive playing was matched by the Orchestra. Welser-Möst led a tight performance of Adès’s brilliantly-scored concerto, and among the many who contributed importantly to its textures was tubist Yasuhito Sugiyama.
The second half of Saturday’s program, featuring opera without singers, might have pleased Rossini in his more disillusioned moments. Here, Welser-Möst and a vast orchestra bolstered by eight horns treated the Severance crowd to an engrossing, 40-minute, fast-forward digest of Götterdämmerung, including “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music,” and “Brünnhilde’s Immolation.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more thrilling sonic experience. The brass were 24-carat Rheingold, especially when four of the hornists added the sonority of Wagner tubas to the mix. Brass, winds, and strings combined in a long, flawless good-bye as Siegfried’s body was put out to sea and Valhalla went up in flames.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 12, 2016.
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