by Mike Telin
On Sunday, November 29, the Cleveland Orchestra presented the first of three events in its new ‘Musically Speaking’ series, an initiative designed to bring Severance Hall audiences closer to the music and the musicians.
The afternoons begin with a 40-minute chamber music concert in Reinberger Hall, followed by a 3:00 multimedia exploration of the orchestral work of the day (this afternoon, Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony) using a narrator, actors, projected visuals and live excerpts played by the orchestra. After intermission, the work is played in its entirety, followed by a question and answer period.
The central format of the first two ‘Musically Speaking’ events derives from the Chicago Symphony’s ‘Beyond the Score’ series, which, as in this case, is franchised to other orchestral organizations. I experienced the CSO’s version of the Dvorak afternoon at the League of American Orchestras conference in Chicago last summer, so it was interesting to be able to compare the two throughout the afternoon.
On Sunday, a capacity audience packed Reinberger Hall for two spectacular chamber music performances by members of the Cleveland Orchestra. We began with Cleveland native Eric Ewazen’s Quintet for english horn (originally, heckelphone) and strings played by Robert Walters with violinists Alicia Koelz and Emma Shook, violist Joanna Patterson and cellist Charles Bernard, followed by the second and fourth movements (Dumka and Finale) from Dvorak’s tenth string quartet played by William Preucil, Alicia Koelz, Joanna Patterson and Tanya Ell.
Perhaps these pieces were only circumstantially related to the Dvorak Symphony (an English Horn, a common composer), but they provided a lovely prelude to what followed. If anyone wonders how the Cleveland Orchestra can produce the quality of sound and ensemble that it does, you only need to hear some of its members play chamber music together.
After a twenty-minute break, the audience reassembled in the main hall for a 60-minute multimedia journey through the era of Dvorak’s life that relates to the ‘New World’ Symphony. Thomas Q. Fulton, Jr. narrated this segment with the assistance of David Hansen, who played Dvorak, Terence Cranendonk who played several other characters, and soprano Andrea Chenoweth, who sang excerpts from spirituals. We learned about Dvorak’s decision to come to America, his impressions of North America prior to coming (based on a German translation of Longfellow’s ‘The Childhood of Hiawatha’), his invitation by Jeanette M. Thurber to create an American music at her new conservatory, his first introduction to black people in New York (and his learning about Negro music from H.T. Burleigh), his admiration for Longfellow’s Hiawatha epics (based on the poetic meters of the Finnish Kalevala), and his visits to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West three years after Wounded Knee.
We also learned that Dvorak’s ‘American’ melodies can be traced not only to spirituals and native American music but just as easily to European themes by Beethoven and Wagner.
Before hearing the Chicago version in June, I was prepared to dislike what looked like a typical audience-building exercise — that is, dumbing down the product to appeal to a broad swath of the public. After that experience, I had to admit that the presentation is put together so intelligently that I can see how it’s one of the most successful community engagement activities the CSO has ever put together. Likewise in Cleveland, the coherence of the script, the quality of the acting and visuals, and the attractive length of the presentation add up to a very enjoyable and informative hour. It doesn’t hurt that the excerpts were played with all the seriousness and quality the Cleveland Orchestra brings to everything it does.
But of course, the whole point of the afternoon was to hear the ‘New World’ Symphony intact. After intermission, we were treated to one of the best performances I have ever heard. Guest conductor Bertrand de Billy and the ensemble brought out nuances that others ignore or have yet to discover, and the totality of the performance was as superb as its many details.
I spoke with two friends afterward — both non musicians but both astute listeners trained as visual artists. When asked how they felt about the afternoon, both immediately focused in on the quality of the images and thought that the text itself was very interesting, giving them a more complete perspective on the piece. A third friend, who is a musician, wondered as I have, why we needed to know all of this to listen to the piece. (Probably one could ask the same question about the need for program notes — always a seemingly essential part of the ritual of attending an orchestra concert.) In the same breath, he acknowledged that this was the best performance of the work he had ever experienced, and he discovered new elements in the work he’d never heard before.
What makes the Cleveland Orchestra’s version of this concept so enjoyable is that its three segments add up to a satisfying whole. I found only one thing lacking on Sunday: an important insight into the universality of the ‘New World’ Symphony offered by the Chicago Symphony but entirely missing from the Cleveland script and notes. Chicago entitles the script ‘Whose World Is It?”, noting that Czechs, Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans and Europeans all ‘own’ the piece from different perspectives. “In this symphony, the echoes of many different nations mix with one another to produce a rainbow of music, a vision of many colors and identities”.
Mark your calendars for the next two events in the series: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in a program called ‘Fate and Triumph’ (‘Pure Melodrama’ in Chicago) with ‘Beyond the Score’ inventor and Chicago Symphony creative director Gerard McBurney narrating, then ‘Mozart the Man’ on March 7, specially produced and directed by John De Lancie (well known to Star Trekkies for his portrayal of Q).
Whether you are a newcomer to orchestral music or a self-proclaimed ‘old curmudgeon’ of classical music (as I am), this is an afternoon you’ll find both enjoyable and illuminating. There’s something relaxing about being able to move among the three segments of the program, and you’ll certainly have plenty of music to fill your ears if you come for the 2:00 chamber music as well as the main event.
Daniel Hathaway contributed to this report.