Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Mixon Hall
June 20

The family that plays together: Diana, Alex and Franklin.

Chamber music concerts tend to be cerebral affairs, with smaller ensembles and venues giving listeners an opportunity to focus on the intricacies of complex music. ChamberFest Cleveland has that part right. But as the opening concert demonstrated, this festival comes from the heart.

The opening piece set the tone: Start-time, a new work by Matan Porat written expressly for the festival’s founders and directors, Franklin Cohen and his daughter Diana. Joined by brother Alexander on timpani, they premiered what is likely the first modern piece composed for clarinet, violin and timpani – an odd combination, to say the least. But the Cohens made it work with a finely calibrated interplay of the three instruments that gradually rose in volume and intensity to the fevered pitch of a tribal dance.

Cohen Sr. could not have been prouder in noting that it was the first time he and his children had performed together. And the piece could not have been more appropriate, a fresh blast of harmonics and propulsive rhythms played in a celebratory spirit.

An ad hoc ensemble of string players followed with a more conventional repertoire work, Mozart’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello in G minor (K. 516). In any other context, the piece would hardly seem conventional. It’s a late work filled with uncharacteristic dark tones and emotional anguish, with the G minor key setting a somber, melancholy mood. And the combination of instruments was still considered experimental at the time Mozart composed the piece in the spring of 1787, when his personal fortunes were at a low ebb and falling.

All of which helps to explain why the Quintet sounded so flat. The group – violinists David McCarroll and Diana Cohen, violists Yura Lee and Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Julie Albers – gave it a professional reading and played with intelligence and sensitivity. But there was little of the internal logic that characterizes high-caliber Mozart, and only hints of emotional depth. It may be unrealistic to expect more from a group of musicians who don’t normally play together, no matter how skilled they are individually. Still, the energy and passion that finally emerged late in the final movement suggested that the ensemble was capable of more.

By contrast, the final piece was superb. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a work of breathtaking beauty and demanding virtuosity, which made it ideal for the senior Cohen, who has been the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist for nearly 40 years. The level of playing and interpretation went up several notches with him leading a group that included violist Lee, cellist Gabriel Cabezas and pianist Orion Weiss. The opening “Liturgy” movement was sharp and smart, and Weiss displayed impressive range in the “Vocalise,” segueing smoothly from controlled banging to soft cascades.

Cohen showed perfect control of his instrument in the “Abyss of the Birds,” adding some flourishes to the sound with swipes of his clarinet. Cabezas struck a compelling tone and drew some clever effects from his instrument for the following “Praise” movement, setting up an outstanding “Dance of Fury” – vibrant and clean, played with an integrity and rhythm that gave it a jazzy feel. The concluding “Angel” and “Immortality of Jesus” movements were less impressive, but only by comparison. The entire piece was so riveting that there was an audible exhale when it ended, one of those rare moments when the entire audience has been transfixed.

The only sour note of the night came in a short program that preceded the concert. “This is an unusual way to start,” Diana Cohen acknowledged in introducing Cabezas and Weiss for a two-piece recital designed to showcase the cellist. He is a young player of considerable talent who did not seem very comfortable with delicate works by Janáček and Debussy. And the placement of the recital was puzzling. Supporting young artists is an admirable goal, but not to open a festival. Caberzas needs some seasoning and the schedule needs refining.

Meanwhile, Mixon Hall continues to surprise and delight. At a certain point as twilight set in, there was a mirror image of the performers in the double glass wall behind the stage, as if an ethereal second group was performing in the garden. The effect was dreamlike, adding a magical moment to an already enchanting evening.

Photo by Gary Adams


Transformer Station
June 21

Synergy in a high-powered industrial space. 

A good festival breaks new ground even as it builds a core audience around familiar programming. A great festival takes listeners places they’ve never been – musically and, in the case of Cleveland, to the West Side.

Though a confirmed cosmopolite, this critic had not been to the Transformer Station in Ohio City before the Friday night ChamberFest concert. The building proved to be as interesting as the music. A one-time electrical substation that powered the Detroit Ave. streetcar line, it is a solid and attractive piece of industrial architecture built in 1924. Owners Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell preserved and refurbished all the best elements, including an eye-popping ceiling crane capable of lifting 15 tons, and grafted on a clean, modern addition that mirrors the 1971 Marcel Breuer addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Transformer Station now houses the Bidwells collection of modern art, and will be mounting exhibitions in conjunction with CMA.

The concert took place in the expansion, where the sound was surprisingly good. Actually, it was amazingly good, to the point where commentator Patrick Castillo declared it one of the best chamber music venues he’s ever heard. That may say more about Castillo than the facility, which supports a warm and full though not very crisp sound, with powerful resonance in the lower registers. An array of portable sound baffles helped. Still, there’s no question that along with a fine new gallery, the Bidwells have created a promising performance space.

I will encourage ChamberFest to put us on their calendar next year,” Fred Bidwell says. “I thought the program and the performances were terrific, particularly the more contemporary pieces, which seemed to be really well-suited to the space.”

Did the Friday concert really need to open with a repeat of Mozart’s Quintet from the previous night? From a planning standpoint, probably. Musically, it wasn’t much of an improvement, once again technically flawless but emotionally bloodless. The tight quarters gave the piece a little more life, but could not instill passion and urgency.

The star of the evening was violinist/violist Yura Lee, whose feet barely touch the ground when she is sitting on a piano bench. But she is a giant as a performer, with sharp technical skills and an absolutely fearless attitude, attacking pieces head-on and plumbing them for expressive depth. Her version of Schnittke’s A Paganini was strikingly mature in both sound and style, with virtuoso control in the closing fadeout. The tone of her highest notes was so pure, they could have been produced by a theremin.

This is one of the most neurotic things you’ve ever heard” Castillo said by way of introducing Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1. That’s one way to describe it. Another would be as one of the most groundbreaking chamber works of the 20th century, written in the composer’s unique and highly influential musical language. Cleveland’s Omer Quartet gave an impressive reading of the piece last month to conclude the Cleveland Chamber Music Society’s 2012-13 season, then took it to South Bend, where they won the Grand Prize in the Fischoff Competition.

Again, the virtues of a standing ensemble over an ad hoc assemblage came to the fore. The players – violinists David McCarroll and Ying Fu, violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Gabriel Cabezas – were smart and skilled, and handled the work’s technical challenges with aplomb. But the fine edges, shifting tempos and emotional integrity of the piece came up short. To be fair, this is a difficult work for even experienced quartets to realize properly, and the organizers deserve credit for putting it on the program.

The concert concluded with a Handel Passacaglia arranged for strings by Johan Halverson. Lee and Murrath hit it at a fast clip and never let up, showing blazing technique and developing some interesting tones and contrasts in the work’s short duration. It’s an unusual choice for a concert closer, but the performance brought the audience to their feet, eliciting cheeky whistling and yelling along with enthusiastic applause.

Great music in a stimulating setting will do that.

For more on the Transformer Station: http://www.transformerstation.org/

Photo by Gary Adams

Monday, June 17, 2013


Various venues
June 20 – 30

The festival is a family affair for Diana and Franklin Cohen.

Just a year after its outrageously successful debut, ChamberFest Cleveland has grown quickly into adulthood. The festival has expanded from five to eight concerts, moved into new venues, and opened up its programming to give young artists exposure and audiences a chance to meet and interact with composers and performers.

The only thing lacking is an A-list of stars, the established groups and soloists who normally headline chamber music concerts. But that wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit and mission of the festival.

The Cleveland Chamber Music Society already does a great job of bringing in groups like the Emerson Quartet,” says Diana Cohen, ChamberFest Cleveland’s executive and artistic director. “What we want to do is create a familial atmosphere not only for the musicians, but for the audience.”

The model for this is Marlboro Music, a festival in Vermont where chamber musicians have gathered every summer since 1951 to play together, trade ideas, mentor young players and occasionally form groups. Marlboro is an egalitarian setting where musicians not only come together musically, but help out with cooking, cleaning and other chores, and bring families along to join in social and recreational activities.

My dad [Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen] and I have both been to Marlboro, and it was a powerful experience for us,” Cohen says. “The idea of a real community with a strong sense of family was something that we wanted to re-create here.”

The father-daughter combination, along with younger brother Alex, a percussionist, lend ChamberFest Cleveland an obvious family face. But the other players are also part of an extended family, all colleagues and friends of the Cohens who have been invited to Cleveland to form an admixture that proved to be more than the sum of its parts in the festival’s inaugural outing.

Last year we brought in a bunch of people, some of whom knew each other, but a lot who didn’t, and it was really kind of magical to see relationships build throughout the festival,” Cohen says. “There was some amazing chemistry. I remember how exhilarated we felt at the first concert, seeing all these great musicians enjoying themselves. In a way, it felt too good to be true.”

And while the talent may not always be well-known, it is first-rate. This year’s roster of performers includes violinists Noah Bendix-Balgley and Amy Schwartz Moretti, cellists Julie Albers, Gabriel Cabezas and Robert deMaine, violists Yura Lee and Dimitri Murrath and pianist Orion Weiss, to name just a few. Two interesting composers are bringing new work: Matan Porat (also a pianist), whose “Start-time” opens the festival, and Andrew Norman, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his “The Companion Guide to Rome,” which will be performed at CIM’s Mixon Hall on June 26.

Those pieces fit neatly into this year’s overall programming theme, an exploration of time in both a technical and abstract sense. Works like Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” (Mixon Hall, June 20) will take listeners on far-flung philosophical journeys, while programs like “A Tempo” (Harkness Chapel, June 28), with contrasting pieces by Schumann, Ravel and Messiaen, offer studies in compositional techniques.

Pre-concert talks, après-concert socials and special events like a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General with live musical accompaniment will give festival-goers a chance to meet the performers, composers and organizers, and become more than passive listeners and bystanders.

We know there are already a lot of chamber music lovers in town, but we hope to create a new culture,” says Cohen. “We want people to be as excited as we are not only about the music, but the process of making it, and to become part of the friendships that are made and the energy that happens when people are making great music together.

If we can create a community around that, it will make us really happy.”

For more on ChamberFest Cleveland, including a complete schedule and ticket information: http://chamberfestcleveland.com/

For more on Marlboro Music: http://www.marlboromusic.org/


Ohio Theater
June 15

Marco Stella shone in Opera Circle's downtown debut.

Opera Circle is the little company that could. Give Dorota Sobieska and Jacek Sobieski a community hall or church sanctuary and a few musicians, and they will put together a credible and entertaining production. Saturday night marked a big step for their organization, a chance to go downtown and show what they can do on a big stage at Playhouse Square.

Their spirited Rigoletto suggests that Opera Circle is ready for prime time.

The evening opened, as always, with a welcome from Dorota that was more than just a perfunctory courtesy. She noted the significance of the occasion, assured the audience that “your presence here is precious,” and perhaps most importantly, set the production in context: “Our mission is to keep opera open and available to everyone.” That means minimal sets, an ad hoc group of performers, and the meager funding spent mostly on colorful costumes and professional singers – a volksoper approach that puts the art form, rather than big stars or egos, front and center.

That approach also favors warhorses like Rigoletto, chosen to attract the widest possible audience rather than break any new ground. But there’s no arguing with the underpinnings of Opera Circle productions. Jacek was music director of the National Theater in Warsaw, Poland for almost two decades, and has conducted operas throughout Europe. Dorota trained at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw and has sung in a variety of recital, orchestral and operatic settings in the U.S. and Europe. So they know how to put on a show.

Rigoletto was helped greatly by two solid male leads – American tenor Isaac Hurtado as the philandering Duke of Mantua, and Italian baritone Marco Stella in the title role. Hurtado has a strong, expressive voice that was evident from his opening “Questa o quella” aria and particularly seductive in the Duke’s ode to love that opens Act II. Hurtado’s acting skills are equally good, which gave his character just the right mix of charm, ardor and guile. The carefree cynicism of his “La donna è mobile” refrain in the final act added a chilling undertone to the tragic denouement.

It was surprising to learn that this production marked Stella’s debut as Rigoletto. He owned the role from his moment he appeared in an over-the-top jester’s costume, reveling in his caustic abuse of noblemen and slowly dissolving into self-pity, vengeance and despair as the evening unfolded. Not much more than awkward padding under his costume marked him as a hunchback, and his portrayal may have been too soft for some tastes. But Stella brought humanity to a role that often lacks it, and his recriminations had a convincing bite.

Dorota Sobieska was less convincing as Rigoletto’s doomed daughter Gilda, partly because she is too old for the part and partly because of uneven singing. The talent is there; when she hits the combination of full voice, emotional expression and technical expertise, the results are wonderful. Her high C# to conclude the “Caro nome” aria in Act II was stunning. But sometimes she could barely be heard.

To be fair, Sobieska was also in charge of stage direction, sets and costumes for this production. With a workload like that, something inevitably suffers, especially in a one-off performance. Singing is a matter of taste, but the irate couple in the fifth row who had their view of the surtitles blocked by a clumsy prop arrangement in the second act probably won’t be back.

Minor glitches have always been part of the Opera Circle package, and probably always will be. What matters is the spirit of the productions – enthusiastic, well-informed and steadfastly professional. The pacing is right, the singers and chorus move properly onstage, and the music and vocals are put together correctly. One might wish for a better-caliber orchestra, or real dancers or an occasional star in the cast. But for straightforward presentations of opera classics by a local troupe, it would be hard to do better.

The question on Saturday was how all this would transfer to a big stage. The short answer is, very well. The lack of a pit muddied the sound a bit, with a 40-piece orchestra on the floor in front of the stage regularly drowning out the singers. Otherwise, the Sobieskis fit neatly into a grand space befitting grand opera. And the nearly full house they drew for Rigoletto should quell any doubts about their ability to attract a downtown audience. Cleveland is lucky to have them, and Playhouse Square would do well to keep them.

For more on Opera Circle: http://www.operacircle.org/