by Daniel Hathaway
In a post-intermission conversation with CIM composition professor Keith Fitch last Wednesday evening, January 27 in Kulas Hall, visiting composer Shulamit Ran showered praise on guest conductor Steven Smith and the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra. They had just assumed the considerable challenges of performing her Legends and Violin Concerto, and she found that impressive. “I wouldn’t have thought I’d live to hear both of those pieces on the same program,” she said.
The two works are indeed a lot to take on individually, never mind together, but Smith and the ensemble were fully up to the challenge. Legends was commissioned to celebrate the 1993 joint centennials of the University of Chicago (of which Ran is distinguished professor emeritus) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (for which she was composer in residence for seven years). Its exotic themes, rhythms, and textures put a whole range of demands on the entire ensemble, its sections, and its individual musicians — not to mention the listeners, whose ears were left ringing at the end by some of Ran’s more brutal writing for high winds and brass. Smith led a brilliant performance that was as tightly organized and impressively constructed as the work itself.
Ran’s 2002-2003 Violin Concerto proved to be the more engaging of the two works on Wednesday’s program, thanks in part to the contributions of Cleveland-born violinist Laurie Smukler, the strong and robust soloist (who now teaches on the faculties of several prestigious New York music schools). Smukler was impressive in the second movement’s relentless moto perpetuo scamperings, and wonderfully lyrical in the cadenzas that marked the valedictory third movement. Smith and the Orchestra were an excellent team throughout the work.
Wednesday’s concert opened with an early 20th-century musico-philosophical curiosity, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, which pits a probing trumpet soloist against a querulous ensemble of woodwinds and a taciturn sea of strings. Never sounding quite the same from performance to performance, the work’s three elements play independently and are meant to be spatially separated. Smith located the expressive trumpeter Paul Torrisi in the organ loft on the left side of Kulas Hall, and the small group of woodwinds at the back of the house, led by assistant conductor Cesare Depaulis, while the strings occupied the stage. It was fun. Ives always is.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 3, 2016.
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