Tuesday, May 21, 2013


78th Street Studios
May 17

An unlikely setting for scintillating chamber music.

It wouldn’t be fair to say the Cleveland Orchestra saved the best for last in its week-long residency at Gordon Square. There were simply too many groundbreaking events and fine performances to allow for any sort of ranking. But in terms of music that fit the space and synthesized both into something fresh and exciting, the Friday night chamber concerts in the 78th Street galleries were the crème de la crème.

A mammoth industrial warehouse built in 1905 to manufacture the famous Baker Electric cars, the 78th Street Studios complex now houses nearly 40 galleries, artist studios, showrooms and retail shops. On Friday evening, its dusty gravel parking lot was packed with cars and a food truck was doing steady business. Inside, the wide metal stairways and labyrinthine hallways were jammed with crowds that swelled in size and changed in character as the night wore on.

An opening chamber trio offered a refined contrast to the factory ambience and funky art hanging on the walls in the spacious first-floor common area. Cellist Tanya Ell, clarinetist Robert Woolfrey and pianist Carolyn Gadiel Warner served up sophisticated selections of Beethoven, Schumann and Poulenc at a volume and timbre that provided both dedicated listening and background atmospherics for an art stroll. A low ceiling helped preserve crisp edges and warm tones in the sound, anchored by Warner’s flowing, elegant keyboard lines.

A soothing trio.
Ell and Woolfrey are both expressive players who offered rich, full leads in duos with Warner, and were commanding in Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat major, Op. 11. They were also remarkably focused, never losing concentration as little children danced near the stage, scolded by their nagging mothers. It didn’t matter. The music was so sublime, it bathed the space in grace and reduced everything else to a background hum.

Then it was up to the third-floor Survival Kit gallery for an ambitious program from Ars Futura, Cleveland’s budding modern music ensemble. Founded and run by Shuai Wang, the multitalented pianist who teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music and programs the Happy Dog’s monthly “Classical Revolution” concerts, the ensemble features CIM grads and favors local composers. Two of them were at the performance to introduce their pieces – Eric Charnofsky, a Juilliard graduate currently teaching keyboard at CWRU, and Keith Fitch, the head of CIM’s Composition Department. Both works were built around abstract piano motifs that were perhaps too rarefied for the occasion; Charnofsky’s piece in particular cleared a number of people out of the otherwise attentive room.

Pianist Wang.
The program opened with a lighthearted piano piece for four hands, Marshall Griffith’s Children’ s Song, played with good humor by Wang and Hyunsoo Kim. (There is no other way to play a deconstructed version of “Chopsticks.”) Charnofsky’s Four Characters for Flute and Piano moved in random fits and starts, and suffered from rock music leaking in from a nearby studio. Fitch’s solo piano work Dances for Tanja opens with a one-handed tango that was played with smooth precision by Wang, who also nailed the piece’s fiendishly difficult third movement. Devolution by Tim Mauthe put Kim back at the piano and added violinist Jimjoo Cho and cellist Carlos Javier, good players who sounded ragged, as if the piece was under-rehearsed. Joseph Hallman’s concluding Four Pieces for Flute and Piano featured Wang and the talented flutist Madeline Lucas, who put some sharp, satisfying edges on the music.

When Ars Futura finished, there were about 30 people in the room. An hour later, there were more than 100 late-night revelers crammed into what suddenly felt like a hot, crowded club where four Cleveland Orchestra players showed how exciting avant-garde music can be.

Trumpeter Sutte.
Trumpeter Jack Sutte performed four short solo works by contemporary American composers that included two premieres, Brian Fennelly’s Distant Call and Paul Rudy’s Jacked! Played with clarity and finesse, the pieces were perfect for the space, riveting but not overpowering. Flutist Joshua Smith and percussionist Jake Nissly wove gauzy atmospherics with expert renditions of Lou Harrison’s Ariadne and Leon Kirchner’s Flutings for Paula, great choices for a hipster art scene. And Nissly provided an energetic finish with a fluid and accomplished version of Iannis Xenakis’ complex Rebonds.

But for this critic, bass player Scott Dixon stole the show with his virtuoso performance of four etudes by Italian composer Stefano Scodanibbio. The pieces are a technical tour de force, calling for techniques and sounds one rarely gets to see and hear. One of them explores the sonic possibilities of the bass completely outside of its normal tonal range. Dixon showed impressive command of both the music and his instrument, eliciting everything from cartoonish squeals to electric hums with precision and a fine balance between whimsy and intensity.

The players were in the audience after the performance, sweaty and exhausted, but happy to chat. Eager fans could hardly ask for more – new and interesting music, expertly played by musicians connecting with the audience on every level. For an orchestra looking to get out of the concert hall and make a visceral connection with the community, it was a dynamic finish to a thrilling week.

For more on 78th Street Studios: http://78thstreetstudios.com/

Trio and Sutte photos courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra


St. Colman Church
May 16

A full house for a meeting of the sacred and sublime.

The Final Judgment could not have packed St. Colman Church any tighter than the Cleveland Orchestra did last Thursday night. There was not a single empty seat in the pews when assistant conductor James Feddeck strode into the sanctuary, filled wall-to-wall with musicians, and struck up the opening strains of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture.

The capacity crowd was indicative of the entire week at Gordon Square, where the orchestra launched the first of its neighborhood residency programs. The idea was to connect the orchestra with the community by taking it out of Severance Hall and putting the players in unorthodox settings – restaurants, bars, galleries, theaters, schools and a health care center – where residents could experience classical music up-close and meet the musicians. If anything, the week was too successful, attracting overflow crowds to most of the 16 events.

St. Colman, a sprawling neoclassical structure on West 65th St. with a mammoth, handsomely decorated interior, is 6.5 miles from Severance. But a walk through surrounding streets is like a visit to another planet, with small, tidy homes sandwiched between boarded-up houses and vacant lots overgrown with weeds. It is not Cleveland’s poorest neighborhood, but it is an accurate reflection of the city’s housing blight and socioeconomic downturn. On the plus side, the racial vibe is relaxed, with whites, blacks and Hispanics mingling easily on the streets and front porches.

In such settings, miracles can happen – one being the survival of St. Colman. Four years ago, it was on Bishop Richard Lennon’s hit list as he began shutting down Catholic parishes throughout the city. Incredibly, St. Colman’s activist congregation was able to convince him to keep their church open. On Thursday, the comparatively minor miracle of hosting a world-class symphony orchestra started outside the church with a touch of class, typical of the way the Cleveland Orchestra does business. Uniformed policemen directed traffic and helped elderly residents across the street, while a shuttle bus brought people who parked at a nearby recreation center.

Inside, staff members in Gordon Square Residency t-shirts took tickets and showed a rainbow of audience members to their seats. The orchestra, looking sharp in summer white tie, was arrayed across the entire three-altar sanctuary, filling every square foot of space and a riser extending out to the first row of pews.

The program was surprisingly refined for a neighborhood outing. After a spirited Hebrides, Feddeck led a lustrous, erudite treatment of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony in D major. Understated percussion anchored a nimble but powerful performance hindered by the sound going squishy at times – there is no other way to describe what often sounded like a monaural recording in the bathtub acoustics of the church.

Heavenly solo work.
But that did not deter principal flutist Joshua Smith from delivering a fine solo in Cécile Chaminade’s Flute Concertino in D major. The reverb and echo effects of the church added charm, and Smith played with such tenderness that a baby’s cry in the audience fit right in. Feddeck managed to create captivating colors and hues in Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, and cranked up a big, boisterous sound for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. William Preucil embellished the latter with a fine violin solo, though the clearest and most striking sound in the piece came, appropriately, from the harps.

The concert ended with the audience on its feet, cheering and whistling like the home crowd at a softball game. That energy carried over to the sidewalk, where small groups gathered in what felt like a wedding atmosphere. There was no rice, or bride. There were, however, plenty of tuxedoed men waiting to get on the orchestra bus. All they needed was a “Just Married” sign and tin cans hanging off the back.

The St. Colman concert was recorded for broadcast on both radio and television. To watch it, turn on WVIZ/PBS at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 24. To hear it, tune into WCLV on Sunday, June 16 at 4 p.m.

Photos by Steven Mastroianni

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Severance Hall
May 12

A fitting finale to an impressive tenure.

Sunday night’s concert was an emotional one for conductor James Feddeck, who had to leave the stage at the conclusion of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration to compose himself before returning for final bows.

It’s a beautiful piece of music,” he said backstage afterward.

But the moment was fraught with much more than Strauss. It capped Feddeck’s final performance with the Youth Orchestra, which he has guided for the past four years. During a brief speech, he described his time leading the young musicians as “an incredible journey,” a sentiment they evidently shared. There were many wet eyes and hugs exchanged as he left the stage for the last time.

This season also marks the end of Feddeck’s tenure as assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, which has been another incredible journey. In the past two months alone, Feddeck stepped in as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Franz Welser-Möst for four mammoth performances of Carmina Burana, and established an historic benchmark with the “California Masterworks” concerts at the Art Museum. Transfiguration indeed.

The hallmarks of the Youth Orchestra under Feddeck have been its professional standards and sound, which shone brightly in his concluding concert. Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal got it off to a brisk start, with sharp opening chords setting the tone for a witty, energetic romp. Feddeck was able to develop surprisingly deep dynamics that at times grew fuzzy around the edges, but were otherwise an adept rendering of the work’s animated orchestration.

Eloquent expression.
Dvořák’s Cello concerto in B minor, Op. 104 is a sophisticated piece for any orchestra to take on, and the young age of this one was evident in the work’s heartfelt but thin emotional veneer. It was nonetheless lovingly crafted, with Feddeck striking a superb sound balance between the orchestra and the soloist, Hannah Moses. She showed impressive command of both the music and her instrument, a 1929 Carletti cello that seems not to have a harsh note in it. Moses played a lustrous second movement that featured an eloquent closing dialogue with the woodwinds, and a particularly expressive third movement backed by full-bodied lights and darks in the orchestra. Though they lack seasoning, the players showed a great feel for the material, and Moses displayed a technical fluency that will only get better.

The second half opened with Szymanowski’s brief Etude in B flat minor, Op. 4, No. 3, which was perhaps the most nuanced piece of the evening. Feddeck started soft and built the sound very gradually, as it might have emerged in the original piano version. Warm and subtle, it set the stage for his “bittersweet” parting speech and the concluding Strauss work.

Death and Transfiguration proved to be a perfect send-off, a professional-caliber performance that started with dark, airy strains and swelled to a great dramatic sweep. The sound was surprisingly supple coming from such a large ensemble, with seamless segues between the many vignettes, especially the transition from fever dreams to the momentary respite of gentle, sparkling strings. The final section of the tone poem could have been written for the occasion, with its heroic horns and rising theme suggesting a sense of accomplishment and new vistas beckoning. As it faded out, the piece seemed to breathe with the rhythm of a heartbeat.

As good as it was, it will not be this critic’s lasting memory of Feddeck. That came almost a year earlier, at the Rudolfinum in Prague, where the young conductor was leading his even younger ensemble on their first international tour. They came to Dvořák’s house to play his music, fully aware of the challenges and boldness of such a move – and pulled it off. The hall was full and the comments afterward were glowing. It was a proud moment to be from Cleveland and a milestone for the Youth Orchestra that will provide lasting inspiration not only for those who achieved it, but generations to come.

Feddeck photo by Roger Mastroianni


Severance Hall
May 9

A Baroque specialist with a flair for keeping the music fresh.
Contrary to what screaming headlines over the past week have suggested, Cleveland is actually a pleasant place to be these days. Spring arrived late, but with a burst of fragrant blossoms and blue skies. The lagoon adjacent to Severance Hall is ringed with clouds of tiny pink and white petals, shimmering in tree-sized bouquets or floating dreamily on the breezes.

The orchestra’s weekend program brought some of that atmosphere indoors, with a trio of frothy Handel works conducted by Dutch Baroque specialist Ton Koopman. Concluding a three-year artistic residency with the orchestra, Koopman wove delicate textures into a colorful, full-bodied sound, capturing both the effervescence of Handel’s music and the power of his regal choral works.

The principal challenge of the opening piece, the first suite of the famed Water Music, is to not sound clichéd. Koopman avoided this by picking up the tempo and imbuing the music with glowing optimism, making it immediately engaging and a bit more suited to modern tastes. His genius lies in doing that without sacrificing an authentic period sound, which is difficult to get from an ensemble not exclusively dedicated to early music.

Though not for Koopman. He led a chamber-sized group of 36 musicians from the harpsichord, balancing light, radiant top strings against a rich Romantic bottom. Paying close attention to detail, the conductor drew ringing high notes from the French horns and intricate, carefully articulated lines from the woodwinds, which played enchanting trios. What set the piece apart, though, was its buoyant spirit and energy. Water Music can seem simplistic by modern standards, but in Koopman’s interpretation it sounded fresh and exciting.

For Zadok the Priest, a coronation anthem written in 1727 for the ascension of King George II, the chamber orchestra expanded to include timpani, trumpets and the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus. The effect was electric. Hitting maximum intensity from the opening notes, the chorus added both volume and depth, underscored by rumblings in the timpani and flashes of color from the horns. Even in that wall of sound, the vocals were crisp and the English-language lyrics quite clear.

Zadok is brief, just a few minutes long. But it was a glorious few minutes, a golden ray of divinity smiling on royalty.

The chorus was also the star of the closing piece, the “Dettingen” Te Deum, written to celebrate a British military victory using text from The Book of Common Prayer. Sounding like a welcoming committee at the gates of heaven, the chorus was even more impressive in the quieter passages – angelic sopranos-only moments, nuanced support for the soloists. All three of the solo singers were competent but unremarkable, though to be fair, no single voice, no matter how good, could have matched the soaring chorale. The spiritual grandeur it evoked was irresistible, dominating everything else on the stage.

Koopman provided elegant support in the orchestra, punctuated by bright, clear embellishments from the trumpets. The conductor worked hard to give the piece majestic proportions, sculpting the sound with fluid strokes of his hands rather than a baton, and bounding around the stage with an energy that earned him enthusiastic applause.

Compared to much of the programming performed on the Severance stage this season, the Handel pieces were confections, light pieces to be appreciated for their immediate beauty rather than lasting impact. Still, they’ve survived for nearly 300 years. And in the hands of an expert like Koopman, it was easy to see why.

For more on Ton Koopman: http://www.tonkoopman.nl//?lan=2

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
May 3

Making the case for modern American music.

What a week!”

That was the reaction of the principals involved in the Cleveland Orchestras “California Masterworks” series after the concluding concert on Friday night, an expression of both relief and achievement. By any measure, it had been an enormous amount of work: two full programs of difficult pieces staged during a week the orchestra maintained its regular schedule at Severance, including a concerto requiring a string quartet instead of the traditional soloist. And that was before five harpsichords and a cloud of noise started blasting away in the atrium.

The results more than justified the effort. Focusing on domestic composers working on the West Coast in the 20th century, the most European of American orchestras made a strong case for the significance of their sonic innovations, and their influence in shaping modern music worldwide.

By virtue of his work with the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Symphony, John Adams may be the best-known of those composers. His Shaker Loops (1978) was originally written for seven strings. In a later arrangement for full string orchestra, the minimalist effects shimmer even more brightly, starting with a great humming like bees hovering and building to a pulsating intensity. Extending compositional techniques pioneered by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams opened up the dynamics to create what he called an “epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence.”

Conductor James Feddeck put an electric charge in the music, building the volume and density in fine gradations that reached a vibrating pitch so penetrating it had visceral impact. The middle movements were light and delicately textured, seeming to float over exotic landscapes before segueing to a pounding finish of contrasting and complementary lines. Other than a few moments when the orchestra slipped back into a conventional sound, it was a riveting performance.

As NewMusicBox Senior Editor Frank Oteri noted in his opening remarks, James Tenney’s Clang (1972) is one long note (E) put through a series of mesmerizing harmonic variations. This marked the first time the piece had been performed outside of California, and it was expertly done. The waxing and waning harmonics melted into each other, creating a seamless sound from front to back, at times very much like taped music being played backwards. (Which is a compliment – the Beatles, among others, used that technique to great effect.)

And who would have thought that heaving groans from the low strings could sound so musical? They added to the inexorable feel of the piece, as it grew from carefully crafted tones with fine edges to cosmic proportions.

For Terry Riley’s concerto The Sands, the orchestra was joined by the Calder Quartet, a group that specializes in contemporary and crossover music and has studied with Riley. In contrast to the composer’s minimalist works, The Sands, written the night the U.S. launched the Gulf War in 1990, is a descriptive narrative piece that portrays a military invasion and its aftermath, laced with Mideastern motifs that gradually coalesce into what Riley describes as “a celebration of singing and dancing on this mysterious planet.”

While the music is compelling, ranging from dread to lyrical repose, it is interesting mostly for Riley’s unconventional use of a string quartet in place of a soloist. Even the traditional roles are upended, with the orchestra often following the quartet’s lead, or carrying on a conversation with the group. The Calder players were sharp and showed virtuoso skills in their solo lines, adding poignancy to the gentler passages and infusing the late melodies with optimism and vitality. Feddeck kept the flow smooth while weaving a colorful mix of references and atmospherics into the piece.

For an encore, the museum staged John Cage’s HPSCHD in the atrium. A multimedia work that combines random scores for seven harpsichords (five in this performance) playing simultaneously with taped random noise and abstract visual projections, HPSCHD was a perfect fit for the space – detailed enough to merit close attention near the stage, expansive enough to provide ambient accompaniment to a party crowd drinking and socializing. It was a bold programming move that worked beautifully, far and away the most successful music event in the atrium to date.

Do we really have to wait another two years for a collaboration between the orchestra and the art museum? Let's hope not. As good as they are independently, the two institutions working together can produce more than the sum of their parts – breathtaking work that informs, entertains and inspires.

For more on the Calder Quartet: www.calderquartet.com

For more on Shaker Loops: http://www.earbox.com/W-shakerloops.html

For more on Terry Riley: http://terryriley.net

Photo by Roger Mastroianni


Cleveland Museum of Art
May 1

Lavish treatment that modern music seldom gets.

The most striking thing about the first night of California Masterworks was how conventional the music sounded – relatively speaking. Composers Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar and Lou Harrison expanded the horizons and possibilities of American music with their forays into new tonal systems and Asian forms and instrumentation. But in the context of their contemporaries and successors, their work sounded less like radical departures than steppingstones to the modern era.

And the polished performance by James Feddeck and the Cleveland Orchestra gave their music a gravitas and dignity it doesn’t often achieve.

Cowell was one of the first composers to stick his hands inside the body of a piano and play the strings rather than the keyboard, laying the groundwork for John Cage’s development of prepared piano, a mainstay in modern music. Cowell’s Sinfonietta (1928) for a chamber ensemble of strings and woodwinds still has a foot in both worlds, employing classical structures to explore new ideas in harmonics. Dissonance is the spine of the piece, and Feddeck handled it so smoothly that even when the strings and woodwinds were playing in different rhythms and keys simultaneously, the sound never became shrill or grating.

His deft direction and the players’ precise articulation opened up space for compelling solo lines by cellist Richard Weiss, and some striking tones. A low-pitched combination of cello, viola and bass (played with a bow) in the third movement sounded electric, like the musicians had suddenly plugged in their instruments. The clarity was also a function of Feddeck’s well-measured tempo, which neatly balanced expression with the technical demands of the piece, and gave it an edge without becoming overheated.

Dane Rudhyar’s Out of the Darkness (1982) was a world premiere, and very likely the best performance this piece will ever get, with lavish care and attention devoted to its many colors, effects and dramatic intensity. Quite unlike the sunny sounds one would expect from California – NewMusicBox Senior Editor Frank Oteri invoked the Beach Boys in his opening remarks on the California scene – Out of the Darkness is just what its name suggests, a landscape of ominous rumblings and anxious undercurrents that build to Wagnerian dimensions. Even with a large ensemble the sound was beautifully transparent, with particularly fine work from Feddeck creating vivid colors in the second movement.

Highly descriptive and deeply distressed, Out of the Darkness sounds cinematic, even quoting Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking Psycho strings at one point. Feddeck’s careful control kept it suspenseful rather than overblown, and he steered a final, unexpectedly warm glow to a gentle finish.

Lou Harison’s Suite for Violin with String Orchestra (1974) was the dominant piece of the first night, essentially a concerto originally written for solo violin and American gamelan, Harrison’s version of Indonesian percussion. Richly inventive, the piece incorporates a range of exotic but accessible sounds into traditional forms, with straightforward melodies offset by bursts of dissonance. Touches like the bass players tapping their instruments for percussive effects add dashes of humor and experimentation.

The solo part presents some serious technical challenges early on, which Stephen Rose handled with aplomb, hitting perfect strings of tiny high notes, even with his left hand crowding the bow. His evocation of changing atmospherics in the “Three Jahlas” was masterful, as was his handling of the unabashedly sentimental final movement, which sounded romantic without becoming cloying.

But it was Feddeck who ultimately made the piece work, with a great feel for the nuances of the music, its shifting moods and dynamics, moments of breathtaking beauty, and the spirit of joy that runs throughout. There were a few spots when the gamelan accompaniment was missed – but not many, as he modulated the orchestra to support the soloist. And once again, his tempo was excellent, setting a pace that made the music sound spirited and spontaneous without losing any of its thoughtfulness.

More than anything, the performance was an impressive demonstration of what 20th-century music can sound like in the hands of a highly skilled ensemble. Too often, works like these are an afterthought on a program, or played at festivals that don’t have the resources to devote serious time and attention to them. In this short series, benefiting from the expertise of a devoted conductor and world-class orchestra, they were a revelation.

For an interesting interview with Lou Harrison: http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/interview_harrison.html

Photo by Roger Mastroianni