Friday, March 29, 2013


Severance Hall
March 27

Drawing a professional sound from a student ensemble.

One of the most impressive aspects of the classical music scene in Cleveland is its focus on youth. The Cleveland Orchestra’s Special Showcase Concert earlier this month offered a reminder of how many programs it sponsors to develop young players – a Children’s Chorus, Youth Chorus, Youth Orchestra, and Isabel Trautwein’s El Sistema transplant – along with regular Education and Family concerts. And on Wednesday night at Severance, the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra turned in a performance that would have made any professional ensemble proud.

Along with talented, CIM’s student orchestra is fearless, taking on substantial programs like Wednesday’s challenging combination of Mussorgsky, Grieg and Prokofiev. Under the baton of CIM Orchestral Program Director Carl Topilow, the sound was superb and the execution was razor-sharp, particularly in Prokofiev’s daunting Symphony No. 5. Soloist I-Chieh Wang showed poise and great potential with her deft handling of Grieg’s Piano concerto in A minor (Op. 16).

Mussorgsky’s prelude to Khovanshchina, an unfinished opera, portrays dawn on the Moscow River in gauzy textures and shimmering colors. It’s a brief exercise in technique that the players finessed nicely, with Topilow drawing a light, golden sound from the strings and creating an ephemeral effect that lingered after the piece gently faded to a close.

Great on the Grieg.
Wang is too young to have developed as a stylist, but her raw talent is unmistakable. After opening the Grieg concerto with a strong declaration of the famous piano phrase, she showed an assured and surprisingly soft touch. In a piece that calls for a lot of banging, Wang did almost none; her hands seemed to float above the keyboard in fluid runs and dramatic flourishes, the lines clearly articulated but never overstated. Sensitivity to phrasing and approach, striking technical skills, mastery of the material – Wang had it all, albeit in early-career form.

Topilow helped with a fine job of balancing the orchestra sound, never overwhelming the piano and opening up space for Wang to build drama. Working largely off the strings, he maintained a silken feel and muted volume until the closing moments, when he built the sound to majestic proportions and steered the piece to a sharp, satisfying close.

Topilow’s forte is colors, and his charges did a masterful job of bringing them to life in the Prokofiev symphony. Amid the heaving intensity of the first movement, the brass shone vividly above the growl of the bass drums and deep horns, and the multiple melody lines pulsed with energy. The orchestra showed remarkable agility with a shift to a more nimble posture and lighthearted tone in the second movement, turning in a technical tour de force with crisp contrasts and driving rhythms. The tension in the third movement was finely crafted, setting up the fast pace and dazzling juxtapositions of the final movement, with melodies and accents flitting through the orchestra like birds, and the sound coalescing behind five percussionists for a spectacular fireworks finish.

After such a polished performance, it was a bit startling to see how young and small the players were when they stood for applause, like someone had put an adult orchestra in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine.* Their next concert pairs the orchestra with an outstanding chamber ensemble, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Circle the date and prepare to be impressed.

For more on the CIM Orchestra’s next concert:

For more on Carl Topilow:

*Sorry about the obscure reference, which is explained here:

Photos courtesy of CIM

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