by Peter Feher
The Cleveland Orchestra took on a timeless subject, but added a modern touch, last weekend at Severance Music Center. War was the theme of this mostly somber program that started with the disillusionment of a 21st-century composer and ended with the conflict and triumph of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”).
In a different ensemble’s interpretation, that trajectory could sound aggressive and even dispiriting. But with guest conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, the Orchestra committed to finding the beauty in every phrase, redeeming the rough edges of an otherwise excellent performance on Thursday, October 13.
Principal cello Mark Kosower gets much of the credit here, setting a standard of refinement with his solo turn in Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. This is a free-form concerto — a “Hebraic Rhapsody,” in the composer’s subtitle — where the soloist never attempts to rival the orchestra but rather makes profound statements in between sections of chaos. Kosower embodied the wisdom of his part, modulating his tone to depict subtle shades of grief, anguish, and despair.
The cellist was up against the biggest orchestra of the evening, an overwhelming force that represents just about everything on Bloch’s mind while he was writing this piece. Prominent lines for oboe, English horn, and bassoon conjure some of the Old Testament sound that the composer had been developing in a series of works he called his Jewish Cycle. Meanwhile, the massive scale of the accompaniment — cresting in a handful of dramatic swells — looms as a sort of threat, a reminder that Bloch was composing at the height of World War I.
A moment of hope emerges near the concerto’s end, but the shimmery music in D major doesn’t last long in the bleak but soul-stirring meditations of Schelomo.
Beethoven does promise a musical victory in his Third Symphony, however, and Szeps-Znaider led a rousing and convincing reading Thursday. After settling into the first movement — which opened with heavier accents and in a quicker tempo than it would finish — conductor and orchestra made pivotal use of the Adagio. Gloom certainly pervades this funeral march, though moments of lightness (notes in the woodwinds) and heroism (chords in the brass) attempt to vanquish the mood. Amazingly, The Cleveland Orchestra had transformed the movement by its end, with Frank Rosenwein’s sensitive oboe solos serving as a connecting thread through it all.
The stage was set for the optimism and bombast of the symphony’s second half, and the musicians delivered. The French horns made a winning joke out of their featured passages in the Scherzo, and everyone had a chance to revel in the variations of the Finale.
It was a world away from the program’s opening piece, Karim Al-Zand’s Lamentation on The Disasters of War. If Beethoven found inspiration for “Eroica” in the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte (though he later scratched the dedication), Al-Zand takes a starker view of the same subject. His 2006 composition for strings is modeled on Francisco de Goya’s brutal series of prints depicting the events around Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.
The Orchestra brought a beautiful sound to the outer sections of the Lamentation, showing that sometimes, music can be healing.
Photos by Roger Mastroianni
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 25, 2022.
Click here for a printable copy of this article