Friday, April 26, 2013


Severance Hall
April 25

A dazzling performance caps a milestone season.

The program was Franz Welser-Möst’s, but the spotlight at Severance this weekend was on the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. The all-volunteer ensemble brought its 60th anniversary season to a rousing conclusion with a glorious performance of Haydn’s The Seasons.

Though it was established relatively late (at the “request” of Music Director George Szell), the chorus has a storied history, due in large part to conductor Robert Shaw. A noted choral specialist who served as Szell’s assistant for 10 seasons, Shaw took over the fledgling group in 1956 and molded it into one of the finest orchestra choruses in the country. His professional standards and personal charisma were such that after he left in 1967 to become music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, some members of the chorus followed him.

The fine job that current choral directors Robert Porco and Lisa Wong have done maintaining those standards was on effulgent display in The Seasons, an oratorio in which the chorus plays an unusually prominent role. Musically, the piece is more like an opera, with three soloists in lead roles and the chorus not just embellishing, but advancing the narrative. This opens up wonderful opportunities for expression, like a segment late in the final movement, “Winter,” when the chorus punctuates an amusing folk tale told by the soprano with reactions like “Ha, ha, that was a good one!” To hear that kind of sharp, spirited exchange from hundreds of voices was remarkable.

And the energy was overwhelming, approaching “Ode to Joy” intensity at times. The chorus started soft, with a hushed entry in the “Spring” movement that invoked the soft breezes in the lyrics. By the time of the “Summer” thunderstorm, the voices roared from the stage in great waves that lost nothing in clarity or transparency, despite their power. And it’s hard to think of another large vocal ensemble that can achieve the shimmering, golden glow the chorus created in the resplendent sunrise section of “Summer” and the finale of “Winter,” which transports listeners to a divine eternal spring.

The Seasons also plays to the orchestra’s instrumental strengths, in particular its trademark attention to detail. The piece is rightly famous for its many effects mimicking the lyrics, like a frog croaking or quail calling, and an extended section that paints a vivid picture of a stag hunt. But there are subtler touches throughout that Welser-Möst rendered with wit and grace, like glittering strings describing the “sparkling flow” of a brook, and a snaky oboe line bringing to life “a reviving sensation.” The conductor’s enthusiasm for the piece was obvious, and his ability to fill in a grand, sweeping canvas with so many small, colorful details was delightful.

The soloists were uniformly good, with baritone Luca Pisaroni making the strongest impression. His role is the weightiest in The Seasons, particularly in the closing ruminations on the meaning of life. Pisaroni’s warm tone and burnished timbre lent solemnity and carried direct emotional appeal. Malin Hartelius’ round soprano and Maximilian Schmitt’s high tenor were an elegant match, particularly in the love duets. And the trios were marvelous, a rare case of three voices fitting together so neatly that they became a unique fourth voice, seamless and captivating.

The Thursday performance was marred by an ugly moment in the opening movement when a cell phone went off with a harsh urban ringtone that seemed to go on forever before it was silenced. Welser-Möst was so upset that he turned to the audience between movements and asked everyone – irately but politely – to turn off their “equipment.” In a way, the faux pas offered a backhanded compliment: Had the spell the conductor wove not been so thoroughly absorbing and completely enchanting, the interruption would not have been nearly so irritating.

It left this critic wondering if perhaps the orchestra’s innovative and aggressive marketing efforts haven’t been too successful. In a perfect world, classical music should be available to everyone. But in some settings, maybe only for the people ready to hear it.

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