Monday, April 21, 2014


Severance Hall
April 19

A great fit with the hometown band.

Herbert Blomstedt is a master technician, a well-traveled conductor who brings great experience and intelligence to his work. At 86, he specializes in spirited treatments of familiar warhorses, giving them new life and flair. He did that with mixed results at Severance on Saturday night, crafting a lush, radiant version of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and a smart treatment of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor that was marred by technical problems.

The Dvořák concerto featured soloist Mark Kosower, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal cellist. A technically dazzling player, Kosower gave the piece a cool reading, precise and restrained, a note-perfect performance that seemed bloodless at times. Even the deep, gut-wrenching reaches of the second movement sounded comparatively tame. The part calls for considerable skill, but in Kosower’s hands it was almost entirely an intellectual exercise, with little emotional content.

At least that the audience could hear. Kosower was drowned out at regular intervals by the orchestra, a surprising lack of balance – especially considering the fine subtleties and shading that Blomstedt created within the orchestra. His approach to the concerto was bracing, with horns that usually take a backseat putting bright colors in the sound and a charge in the music. Careful layering, rich textures and vivid woodwinds provided fine details in an authoritative interpretation that was a model of craftsmanship.

Except when it stepped on the cello lines. One could argue whether this was the conductor or the soloist’s fault; a more impassioned player might have risen above the orchestra. But Kosower already seemed to be sacrificing expression for volume. And normally the balance is worked out in rehearsal. Still, both Blomstedt and Kosower were on point for a thrilling finish, which brought the audience to its feet with a big hometown cheer for the cellist.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony was a study in how to freshen a well-known work. Blomstedt knows it so well that he didn’t even need a score to conduct. After a quiet, deliberate opening, he quickly stepped up the pace and tone, imbuing the melodies with a warm, emotional sweep and opening up the march section to epic dimensions.

The grandeur of Tchaikovsky’s work can turn plodding in less experienced hands, but Blomstedt kept the pacing nimble and the sound flowing, unabashedly romantic in the melodies of the second movement and bold in the big dynamics of the third. The latter unfolded like a succession of crashing waves, propelling the listener to a pounding conclusion. And Blomstedt’s control in the muted finale was superb.

The players stayed in their seats during one of the curtain calls to applaud the conductor, who seemed to share their affection and admiration. It was a rewarding moment for the audience as well, an acknowledgment of the great music that world-class professionals can create together.


Cleveland Museum of Art
April 12

World-class skills in a throwback setting.

Style, technique, an original approach, a brilliant discography, even an exemplary profile offstage – Midori has it all. What impresses in live performances is her intelligence, her deep understanding of the material
and ability to articulate a wide range of visions and voices.

The Japanese violinist was in Cleveland as part of CMA’s stellar “Masters of the Violin” series with frequent piano accompanist Özgür Aydin. They opened with delicate Debussy, ventured into the dark rigors of Shostakovich, then served up a second half straight from the heart of the classical canon, with standards by Beethoven and Schubert.

Midori’s uncommon facility stems partly from her virtuoso playing skills. But she also devotes a great deal of thought to what she plays, to the point of writing her own program notes. When she gives a recital, Midori doesn’t so much play the pieces as inhabit them, taking on the composer’s persona, period and ideas. Some are a better fit than others – Debussy, for example, a perfect match for her achingly sweet sound, Shostakovich not so much. But her feel for the material is masterful, no matter what the piece.

Debussy’s Sonata in G minor was a carefully crafted exercise in atmospherics, with Aydin adding some lyrical heft to Midori’s airy string lines, rendered in fine, bright colors that coalesced into brilliant shimmers. The pianist’s liquid flow on the keyboard swelled with occasional dark undercurrents, setting up dazzling violin runs.

Just as impressive as the duo’s technical skills was their presentation of the piece as a dialogue – of sorts. Rather than accompany one another, the piano and violin jostle together in a running exchange of motifs and melodies, each seeming to push the other to greater heights. In Aydin and Midori’s hands the two parts were beautifully linked, played in matching dynamics and tempos while maintaining separate, complementary identities.

The duo gave Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (Op. 134) the sweetest treatment it will ever get, without a single harsh note from the keyboard and even the dissonant violin lines softened to an agreeable luster. Aydin provided a dramatic bottom and controlled tumult in his solo passages, freeing Midori to focus on the frantic violin runs that rise to a fever pitch in the second movement, then subside to an extended elegy in the third. That final movement is a complex, shifting landscape of moods and textures that the duo handled with aplomb.

Beethoven’s Sonata in G major was a surprise: Stately, formal, almost reverential in tone and character, like a hymn. Given the flair the duo showed for Shostakovich, Beethoven seemed primed for an exuberant burst of energy. Instead, they went the other way, opting for refined elegance. It was like a throwback to true chamber music, played in a smart but subdued style in an intimate setting where nuance matters more than volume. Midori rendered the piece with a heartbreaking tenderness that few violinists, even with a 1734 Guarneri in their hands, can match.

Schubert’s Rondo brilliant in B minor was a return to classic form, boldly stated and cleanly played, with not much more than a lyrical quality shading a no-frills interpretation. The flashy finish makes it natural closer, but on most programs it likely would have been at or near the top, establishing a stylistic baseline before the players ventured into unconventional territory. In this case it was like a coda, a reminder that after all the stylistic excursions, Midori and Aydin were equally capable of playing first-rate, straight-ahead chamber music.

The entire concert could have taken place in a salon, which was refreshing. It’s hard to see a performance nowadays without looking through a clutter of wires, mike stands and other electronic paraphernalia. This was pure – two musicians onstage with their instruments, and nothing else. For a performance of this caliber, nothing else was needed.

For more on Midori:

The final concert in the Masters of the Violin series features one of the great names in world music: Roby Lakatos, King of the Gypsy Violinists. For more:

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders