Sunday, April 21, 2013


Severance Hall
April 18

Rockin' out with Stradivarius and Shostakovich.

Music Director Franz Welser-Möst returned to the podium Thursday night looking agile and fit after a bout with a bad back. And the program opened with a world premiere, a commissioned work from Sean Shepherd, who is wrapping up a two-year fellowship with the orchestra.

But the real star of the show was Frank Peter Zimmermann, a German violinist who turned in a performance that would have earned him immediate entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was holding its 2013 induction ceremonies simultaneously on the West Coast.

The Shepherd piece was monumentally ambitious, a three-part work for a large orchestra based on iconic photos taken by Ansel Adams in the high wilds of Yosemite National Park. That area was once inhabited by Native Americans who may have been called the Tuolumne, which is what Shepherd titled his piece. In extensive program notes, he characterized it not as a description of the photos, but a reaction to them, an invocation of place and atmosphere.

Nevertheless, Tuolumne is a highly descriptive work, starting with a flurry of sharp flutes and other birdcalls, and gradually opening onto a vast landscape of noisy animals, dreamy meadows, rippling streams and towering peaks. Largely neo-classical, it balances the grandeur of the setting with whimsical moments that include some outright humor in the second movement, which features colorful effects like snickering horns and kick-in-the-pants percussion. The final movement becomes more solemn, even ominous in its use of big strings and brass.

Shepherd drew comparisons to Smetana and Mussorgsky in describing his conceptual framework, but Tuolumne seems more in the vein of Messiaen – reveling in the beauty of the natural world, mimicking its aural delights, and finishing in a state of spiritual uncertainty and yearning. For a 33 year-old composer, it is a surprisingly mature work that deserves to have a broader audience.

Zimmermann walked onstage with a stunning instrument in his hands – a 1711 Stradivarius once owned by Fritz Kreisler. Its deep, rich tone was perfect for Shostakovich’s Violin concerto No. 1, a protest as anguished as anything the composer wrote during a lifetime of railing against oppression. Zimmermann caught that mood immediately, though without the jagged edges that often characterize Shostakovich – at least to start. The violinist is a brilliant technician who makes even the most complicated passages sound fluid and look easy.

Zimmermann’s star turn came in the cadenza bridging the third and fourth movements, when he literally attacked his instrument, playing with such fierce intensity that it looked as if he would saw the violin in half with his bow. He threw his entire body into the passage, bending into raw, frenzied runs and stomping around the stage like a rock guitar player. It was a gripping interpretation, so skillful and distressed that it earned Zimmermann the rarest of accolades: The orchestra members didn’t just tap their bows when he finished – they put down their instruments and applauded.

Welser-Möst provided an appropriately dark but unusually subdued background that would have benefited from more fire at times, particularly in the menacing Passacaglia. In his hands, the orchestration sounded almost too polite, more magisterial than beleaguered. But no complaints about giving Zimmermann the spotlight, nor about the fine control and balance in the orchestra.

And Welser-Möst didn’t hold back for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, opening up the sound with bright brass, a light touch in the strings and a captivating lyrical sweep. The tempo was choppy at times in the middle movements, but they glowed with an array of colors, particularly in the woodwinds. The final movement started gently, building to full dynamics and an energetic finish without losing any of the conductor’s trademark transparency.

Although the symphony is 133 years old, it had historical resonance in this performance led by a Viennese conductor. The premiere was supposed to take place in Vienna in 1880, but when members of the Vienna Philharmonic objected, Dvořák took the piece back to Prague, where the Czech Philhamonic premiered it the following year. Coming full circle in the New World, this work is in the Cleveland Orchestra’s wheelhouse: Romantic, full-blooded and filled with exquisite detail. It made for a robust conclusion to a smart, stimulating program.

A video of Zimmermann performing Shostakovich’s Violin concerto No. 1 is posted online at:

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