by Neil McCalmont
On Saturday night, July 23, The Cleveland Orchestra welcomed the return of their former Resident Conductor Jahja Ling to Blossom Music Center, where he previously served as Festival Director. Ling conducted the orchestra in a Scandinavian-themed concert, “Northern Lights and Moods,” that also featured the technical and poetic prowess of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Despite the muggy and sweltering heat Northeastern Ohio has been experiencing, the evening cooled down nicely, as if mother nature knew there was an important concert going on. Just after Ling ascended the podium, the Blossom “Boom” made itself known — perhaps it politely wanted to get its cameo out of the way before the music began.
Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s wrote his Four Norwegian Moods — filled with the country’s folk-melodies — for a 1940’s film on the Nazi invasion of Norway, but the movie was never completed. The wind section plays the most prominent role in this delightfully and innovatively orchestrated suite, and The Cleveland Orchestra excelled in the many solo parts. The English horn melody at the beginning of the “Song” gracefully swayed over the shimmering violins, while the third movement “Wedding Dance” brought to mind the giddy dancing of gnomes and trolls.
Norway’s foremost composer, Edvard Grieg, wrote his Piano Concerto he was only 24. One of his few large-scale works, it is also one of his most popular. The last movement is based on a Norwegian folksong and is one of the earliest instances of Scandinavian nationalism in classical music.
Thibaudet was a commanding presence on stage. After the dramatic opening cadenza — which has worked its way into popular culture through its use in many commercials — Ling and the orchestra outlined the melodic framework of the moment. Then the pianist began to have his day. Thibaudet’s performance pulled you into the music like a great work of literature transports you to another world. Just after he lulled you with a gorgeously lyrical melody, he would transition seamlessly into an intensely ferocious section, dragging you deeper and deeper into the music. Yet he never lost his unapologetic elegance, particularly in the second movement, where there was no muddiness or hurriedness.
Whichever of the wide-ranging emotions in this concerto he was conveying, he always added character to the music, making it his own. This was especially evident in the final movement, where he combined folk-dance with irrepressible virtuosity. The union of Thibaudet, Ling, and the orchestra created large-scale chamber music at its finest. He gave the thunderously applauding audience — who barely let him off of the stage — a dream-like performance of Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 as an encore.
Hearing the ominous opening clarinet solo in Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 under the night sky made it sound as though it were coming from the stars. The orchestra swelled to epic proportions, with lush, thrilling brass moments and lovely sprinkles of harp playing by Trina Struble. Sibelius’s narrative of contrasting sections proved to be no obstacle to the orchestra, who flowed like steady ocean currents through the symphony and never missed a detail. Ling’s inspirational leadership and the good chemistry between orchestra and conductor contributed to the excellent playing of the instrumentalists. The fun-filled “Scherzo” showcased the jubilant pounding of timpanist Tom Freer. The entire orchestra peaked in a dance-like section in the finale — and the quiet final bars might have caught you off guard as the symphony came to a nostalgically fulfilling finish.
Saturday night’s concert was thrilling. This collaboration of so many dedicated and talented musicians is a reminder of all that Cleveland has to be proud of, right here in its own backyard.
Blossom photo by Roger Mastroianni.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 25, 2016.
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