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

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