Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Blossom Music Center
July 21

An impressive Blossom debut for Laquita Mitchell. 

America, she is beautiful. And shamelessly so in the Sunday night program at Blossom, which lacked only fireworks to cap a celebration of native music ranging from traditional spirituals to a contemporary film score, spiced with tasty samplings of Porgy and Bess. Even with a Spanish concerto in the mix, it was an evening of lʼamour with Lady Liberty.

Opening pieces don’t get much bigger than John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare, written for the Statue of Liberty centenary celebration in 1986. That’s bigger as in expansive, with conductor James Feddeck striking a triumphant tone from the first blast of brass, then rolling out the rest of the fanfare in grand proportions. The only problem with starting out at maximum intensity is that there’s nowhere left to go, at least in terms of volume. But powerful internal dynamics gave the piece a satisfying sweep.

Three brief selections from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln were enough to reaffirm Williams’ mastery of the soundtrack trade. Even separated from its subject matter, the music was heartwarming and unmistakably American in its optimism and vivacity. One could almost bask in the glow of grass-roots democracy, especially in the Coplandesque middle section, with its barn dance-style fiddle. A sentimental close with top strings swelling and low strings descending suggested deeper layers of meaning (and the tragedy to come), though drew only tepid applause.

A composer with flair.
Óscar Navarro’s Il Concerto was a pleasant surprise. The composer, who was present for the performance, does a lot of film scores, an influence evident in the many quick changes of mood, color and tempo in this one-movement work. He was lucky to have an outstanding soloist – Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen, who gave the lead instrument a strong, persuasive voice, segueing seamlessly from smoky, sinuous legato lines to fast-clipped runs. Feddeck took advantage of percussive elements like hand-clapping to give the orchestral backing an entertaining snap. A brisk, jazzy finish drew enthusiastic applause – less a reflection of the piece, perhaps, than a good showing by the Franklin Cohen fan club.

The second half opened with three spirituals arranged for a capella voices by the late Moses Hogan, an Oberlin College alum. Employing a lot of body English, Feddeck led the Blossom Festival Chorus through a crisp, energetic performance, adding colorful flourishes that only a high-caliber chorus can produce. The sound was magnificent. And it had absolutely no soul, which was hardly surprising. There is no way a 110-person, classically trained chorus is going to emulate a gospel choir. No matter how good the singing and conducting, they’re going to sound more like Beethoven than the Blind Boys of Alabama.

But the spirituals were a good warm-up for a generous selection of songs from Porgy and Bess. Gershwin’s music never fails to dazzle, especially with strong singers bringing it to life. Soprano Laquita Mitchell had star billing in the dual role of Carla and Bess, which allowed her to open with a tender “Summertime” and emote through favorites like “Promised Land” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Mitchell’s naturally high voice was beautifully rounded and impressively strong, at times rising over both the baritone and the orchestra. One wonders what she could do with Wagner.

A convincing Porgy.
Baritone Eric Greene has a swagger and tone commensurate with his large stature, and a voice with a wonderful, dark-hued timbre. His diction suffered a bit in spots, but otherwise his singing packed a punch, particularly as he ran away with “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’.” Tenor Rodrick Dixon had only two brief moments in the spotlight but made the most of them, mugging his way through “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Leaving Soon.” The latter gave him a chance to stretch his voice to serious operatic heights.

Feddeck provided an extraordinarily lush background for the singers, at times almost too detailed for the setting. But he kept a lively momentum going and finished on a rambunctious roll that carried over to the encore, “America the Beautiful.” All that was missing were fireworks. But they would have been redundant in the tidal wave of sound roaring from the stage, providing a spectacular finish to a gloriously overwrought evening.

For more on Óscar Navarro: http://onavarro.com/

For more on Rodrick Dixon: http://www.tenorroddixon.com/


Blossom Music Center
July 20

An enthusiast whose joy carries over to the music.

What a pleasure to see someone who understands the vocabulary of Baroque and early classical music present an evening of Mozart and Haydn. Nicholas McGegan brought his considerable expertise along with an irrepressible buoyancy to an 18th-century program on Saturday that added some sparkle to a steamy summer night.

McGegan, 63, comes with an impressive and in some ways unusual pedigree. A well-regarded early music specialist, he has served as music director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for 27 years. He is also an accomplished opera conductor and prolific recording artist. Whatʼs most striking, though, are his many appearances with symphony orchestras – unusual for a maestro whose primary focus is working with chamber ensembles.

McGeganʼs performing schedule for this summer neatly encapsulates the breadth of his activities: leading the Orchestra of St. Lukeʼs in New York and the Arcadian Academy in La jolla; teaching and collaborating with stars like Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony at the Aspen Music Festival; and conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Given his extensive work with small ensembles, it wasn’t surprising to see him strike up the opening piece, Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 (K 319) like he was conducting a chamber group. The 50-piece strings and woodwinds aggregation from the Cleveland Orchestra responded with aplomb, playing with a light-hearted spirit and frothy effervescence. But the musicians had to fill in a lot of the details themselves, as McGegan didn’t so much conduct as guide them through the piece.

This is a typical approach in chamber music, where the players know a narrower repertoire intimately. In this case, with McGegan working from phrase to phrase and constantly urging the orchestra to catch up, the overall arc of the music suffered. The sound, however, was lustrous, with silken violins and tender woodwinds giving it a golden glow.

Setting a sharper tone.
The definition sharpened in the second piece, Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G major (K 313), mostly because the players followed the soloist, Cleveland Orchestra principal flutist Joshua Smith. Though his intonation suffered a bit on the high and low ends, Smith complemented the orchestra with a sound as smooth as butter, and showed some flair in the cadenzas, cleverly quoting Mozart’s Magic Flute. Used to playing with one of their own, his colleagues supported him with precision and elegance. And McGegan graciously took a backseat, setting a stately tempo but otherwise mostly staying out of the players’ way.

Back with a firm hand for the second half, McGegan set a brisk pace for Cimarosa’s Overture to The Secret Marriage. It seemed almost too controlled at the start, but opened up nicely with some particularly rich colors and a burst of fire at the end.

The concluding piece, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, brought together all the best elements of the evening – great intelligence, lively energy, glowing sound – and added depth and texture for a satisfying finale. The opening drum roll quickly established a crisp tone that McGegan carried throughout, adding character with subtle shadings and swaying rhythms. Violinist Jung-Min Amy Lee, sitting in the concertmaster’s chair for the evening, added a fine violin solo in the second movement. By the third movement, the conductor was waving his arms like a windmill, propelling the piece with a momentum that was missing from the first half.

Whatever one thinks of his sound, McGegan is a show in himself, obviously taking great joy in his work as he bounds around the podium, sometimes literally hopping in time to the rhythms. His energy is infectious, adding zest and an air of enchantment to the music. In less knowledgeable hands, this could come across as forced or coy. With McGegan at the podium, it was a treat to watch a master at work.

For more on Nicholas McGegan: http://nicholasmcgegan.com/

For more on Joshua Smith: http://www.soloflute.com/

Joshua Smith photo by Nannette Bedway

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Blossom Music Center
July 6

A refined approach to passionate music.

The thunder came early in the orchestra’s Saturday night concert – literally. A brief but ferocious thunderstorm roared through Blossom during the opening piece, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (Op. 133), unleashing wind-whipped sheets of rain and booming thunderclaps. The apocalyptic atmospherics would have been a better fit with the second piece on the program, Liszt’s portentous Totentanz (Dance of Death).

Or perhaps not. The Grosse Fuge was deemed incomprehensible (and nearly unplayable) when it premiered in 1826, and is still considered a radical work today. Departing from the conventions of the string quartet, Beethoven composed a furious, deeply introspective movement that no less an authority than Igor Stravinsky declared “will be contemporary forever.” It has survived as a standalone piece that taxes players’ abilities and listeners’ stamina.

But there was little of that in the orchestra’s performance, which was nuanced, well-informed and altogether pleasant. Conductor Franz Welser-Möst managed to build some drama in the final minutes, but otherwise it was a spirited romp. This may be a function of transposing the piece from a string quartet to an orchestral work; there is no way dozens of strings, especially the golden Cleveland Orchestra violins, are going to have a jagged edge. Mother Nature had to step in to provide that.

Dancing with Mr. D.
Liszt’s Totentanz brought the return of French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who plays with an authority and flair well-suited for the piece. A tempestuous set of variations on the 13th-century Dies Irae hymn (which also survives in the Catholic funeral Mass), Totentanz is noted for its percussive use of the piano, an innovation when Liszt composed the work in the 1850s.

Thibaudet attacked the piece like a percussionist, hammering out the opening four-note theme like a blacksmith on an anvil, then ripping into blazing cadenzas. Anyone can bang, but what most impressed about Thibaudet was his virtuosity – his technical command, facile phrasing, fluid segues to lyrical passages and superb rendering of light and dark tones. Somehow he made it all sound spontaneous, as if the sound were erupting from the keyboard. And the orchestra amped up a fireworks finish that matched the electricity in the sky.

Welser-Möst brings an air of refinement to whatever he touches, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) was no exception. He opened the work in grand, glorious terms, with powerful internal dynamics and bright splashes of color. As it developed, the conductor’s usual strengths came to the fore – crystal clarity, exceptional balance and careful attention to fine details, in particular a light touch in the violins that was lustrous against the horns and woodwinds.

If the tempo dragged a bit in the second movement, it picked up again in the third, which was still tightly controlled as it built to majestic proportions. The final movement captured the heroic element of the work, though not quite in the ringing, full-bodied dimensions one might wish for in Beethoven. But whatever one’s tastes, hearing this expansive, inspirational symphony in the open air of a summer night is a divine experience.

Even if you have to brave the wrath of the heavens to do it.

For more on Jean-Yves Thibaudet: http://www.jeanyvesthibaudet.com

To hear Thibaudet play Totentanz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnboa80gIQI

Orchestra photo by Roger Mastroianni


Blossom Music Center
July 5

Enlightenment outdoors, with natural accompaniment.

The incomparable summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra adds its own color to classical concerts. Birds chirping, children playing on the hillside and tree frogs croaking in the deepening twilight can be charming asides. But the opening concert of this year’s summer season was so riveting that an earthquake could have shaken the pavilion without causing a distraction.

Especially with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 on the bill, an earthquake in itself.

The evening opened with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, composed in 1948, a year before the composer’s death at the age of 85. Had Strauss written nothing in his life but those songs and his Oboe Concerto (composed in 1945 and performed by the orchestra at Severance last September), he would still have a place in music history. They are brilliant distillations of both the period and the waning years of an individual life.

Shy on the high end.
Conductor Franz Welser-Möst strode on stage with a longtime colleague, Slovak soprano Luba Orgonášová. A well-regarded lyric coloratura who has worked throughout Europe with a succession of esteemed conductors, Orgonášová is, at 42, past her prime. In its best moments, her voice has a crystalline beauty with a delicate, airy quality, seeming to float on the melody. And her purity of tone is breathtaking. But in the highest registers her voice simply disappears, fading into a refined wisp swallowed by the orchestra.

Still, with warm, sometimes glowing backing from Welser-Möst and his players, the songs were captivating. In particular, Orgonášová gave the concluding Im Abendrot (At Sunset) a haunting, elegiac feel. And Welser-Möst could have put lions to sleep with his lush, tender treatment of Beim Schlafengehen (At Bedtime).

Shostakovich is always a wake-up call, and No. 8 is packed with his full inventory: elaborate orchestration, raging passion, explosive percussion and the occasional playful moment designed to keep everyone (especially Soviet censors) guessing about his true intentions. The symphony makes serious demands on both the musicians and audience – the first movement alone is nearly a half-hour long – but Welser-Möst and the orchestra have assayed it before, even performing the piece on tour during the 2002-03 season.

A more finely crafted version would be hard to find. With his signature attention to detail, Welser-Möst created a transparent sound featuring crisp strings, sharp percussion, brilliant colors in the woodwinds and horns, and dramatic swells of emotion. Tension simmered even in the quiet passages, and the rhythms were propulsive, particularly in the animated third movement. The overall effect was like a grand painting teeming with masterly accents and flourishes, rendered in exceptional clarity.

It was also remarkably polite, not a word often used to describe Shostakovich’s music. More typically, it comes with rough edges that sacrifice some detail but better convey the powerful emotional impact of the score. This is a matter of taste, not a question of interpretation. No. 8 is a sprawling work that can be presented from many different viewpoints, and it certainly benefited from Welser-Möst’s elegant treatment. But the performance lacked fire, which is a defining element of Shostakovich’s symphonies.

It also lacked a sizable audience, which is a shame. Perhaps concert-goers had their fill of fireworks the previous night, or were put off by the Strauss/Shostakovich program. Beethoven and Mozart certainly go down easier. But these 20th-century masterpieces deserve to be heard, and the orchestra deserves credit for opening its summer season with a substantial and very satisfying program.

For more on Blossom Music Center and the orchestra’s summer schedule: http://www.clevelandorchestra.com/about/blossom-festival.aspx

Blossom photo by Roger Mastroianni

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Mixon Hall
June 29
Dunham Tavern
June 30

Refined music with a rustic touch at Dunham Tavern.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house at either of the concluding ChamberFest concerts. And truth to tell, there weren’t many throughout the rest of the festival. That speaks to smart organizing skills and marketing savvy, but more importantly, reaffirms the timeless appeal of quality programming performed by high-caliber players.

The template that worked so well came to the fore again on Friday night, with traditional chamber works by Haydn and Brahms setting the stage for a blowout reduction of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The former kept the traditionalists happy, while Stravinsky still pushed the envelope, fully 100 years (to the day) after Parisians hissed and booed what is now regarded as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

After a heavy modern workout on Friday, pianist Matan Porat brought a lyrical quality to Haydn’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (XV:28), embellished nicely by violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and cellist Tanya Ell. The interpretation was straightforward but the tempo and sound were seductive, if a bit mechanical at times.

Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Cello (Op. 115) was perhaps the most emotional piece of the entire festival – not surprising, given its dedication to ChamberFest Managing Director Christina Gaston, who died unexpectedly in April. The piece lends itself to muted strings and the somber tones struck by clarinetist Franklin Cohen, though the emotional intensity that he and violinists Yehonatan Berick and Diana Cohen, violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Robert deMaine brought to their performance was striking. A virtuoso closing fade evoked a passing moment, and life, beautifully.

There were only four players for the Rite of Spring reduction, but their two pianos and dual percussion sets filled the entire stage. And the piece lost nothing in power or impact, with Porat and Orion Weiss providing seamless, interlocking keyboard lines, backed by explosive punctuation from Alexander Cohen and Scott Christian. It was fascinating to hear the work broken down into its component parts, which sounded no less radical sans orchestration. And no less primal – a reflection of the precision and quality of the playing.

Sunday’s closing concert offered a warm contrast, not just to the fireworks of Saturday night, but in the setting and scope: British and German works played in an American barn. Or more precisely, Dunham Tavern, the restored 19th-century settlers’ home and stagecoach stop on Euclid Ave. Rebuilt after the original burned down in 1963, the new barn offers an open, rustic wooden space that produces a surprisingly rich, full sound.

Two brief sweeteners to start: A Fantasia in F major and Chaconne by Purcell, played with spirit and zest by violinists Noah Bendix-Balgley, Amy Schwartz Moretti, cellist Tanya Ell and violists Yu Jin and Yehonatan Berick. Ell had some particularly nice lines in the Chaconne, showing how to put a lilt in the low end.

Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 (Op. 36) has some structural ties to Purcell, but those are quickly forgotten in this work’s endlessly fascinating and unconventional tones, textures and colors. It calls for superb technical command, which violinist Diana Cohen and cellist Julie Albers showed in several skillful turns. Violinist Schwartz Moretti and violist Murrath were even better, playing solos and lead lines with virtuoso precision and flair.

Schwartz Moretti was also a standout in the first violin seat for Mendelssohn’s Quintet No. 1 for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello (Op. 18), playing with tenderness and careful attention to detail. The piece starts with focused intensity but lightens up as it progresses, and violinist Bendix-Balgley, violists Berick and Murrath, and cellist Robert deMaine joined in bringing it to an exuberant, impassioned finish.

Interestingly, the predominant feeling among the ChamberFest staff as the audience gathered in the garden for après-concert ice cream was, “We’re so sad!” Riding an emotional high usually ends with a bumpy landing, though the staff wasn’t alone. The energy of the festival came not just from the dazzling performances onstage, but from a full schedule of talks, socials and special events that made the audience part of the action. So the letdown was a shared emotion. And the festival set standards that the Cohens will be hard-pressed to top in 2014.

For more on Dunham Tavern: http://dunhamtavern.org/

For a video of Pierre Boulez discussing and conducting The Rite of Spring: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAI_Id4ve-M

Photo by Gary Adams


Mixon Hall
June 26
Harkness Chapel
June 28

Taking the tour of Rome: Cohen, Albers and Murrath.

Maybe there’s something to be said for a break. The second week of the festival opened with a burst of fresh energy, fueled by a few days off, an influx of new performers and bold programming that took listeners on some wild rides.

The centerpiece of Wednesday night’s concert was The Companion Guide to Rome, a 2010 work for string trio by American composer Andrew Norman. Just 33, Norman has already amassed a long list of awards and compositions noted for their spatial dimensions and architectural references. Those elements permeate Companion Guide, a collection of nine portraits of churches in the Eternal City filled with quick turns, sharp changes of mood and atmosphere, and touches of humor like the sudden intrusion of a car horn.

Though much of the music is abstract, it invokes very specific images and feelings. Late afternoon light dapples a high ceiling in the “Cecilia” movement. Whimsical note-bending and whirling turns in “Ivo” left this astonished critic feeling slightly dizzy, as if the twirling had been an actual physical experience. Norman’s ability to translate tactile sensations into music is remarkable, and was helped in this case by a fine performance from violinist Diana Cohen, violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Julie Albers.

What to pair with a groundbreaking work like Companion Guide? The Cohens dug up a perfect opener, an obscure Biber piece titled Battalia à 10, which portrays a military skirmish in vivid and inventive terms. To re-create the sound of a marching drum, for example, bass player Scott Dixon inserted a page of the score between his strings and tapped them with his bow. With eyes closed, you couldn’t tell the difference. He and the other nine players gave a bright, animated rendering of the rest of the piece, led by first violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti.

Most of the ChamberFest programs closed on a traditional note, as in this evening’s Sextet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Two Cellos by Brahms. The instrumentation – essentially a trio doubled – opens up some interesting structural variations and tones. For listeners who prefer to sit back, close their eyes and be carried away, it’s also captivatingly beautiful. The ensemble played it with a sophisticated combination of expression and technique, topped by golden sounds from violinists Schwartz Moretti and Noah Bendix-Balgley.

Mixon Hall makes good music better with its superb acoustics, but Harkness Chapel does the opposite, diffusing the sound and adding a jangle around the edges. This robbed Friday night’s concert of some impact, though the playing was once again sharp and the program outstanding.

The high point was Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. Written in 1914, it is a brilliant work that makes heavy demands on both the players and audience, with increasingly intricate themes, overlapping time signatures and virtuoso coloring. A sensitive first movement featured flowing keyboard work by Matan Porat and deeply felt, melancholy strings from violinist Yehonatan Berick and cellist Julie Albers. Tight ensemble playing carried the rhythmic surges of the second movement, building to intense third and fourth movements marred a bit by a leaden quality in the lower piano registers. But the overall effect was lustrous, especially Albers’ lead cello lines.

The opening piece, Ginastera’s Pampeana No. 2, was also weighed down by the keyboard, though Porat and cellist Robert deMaine wound it up to a snappy close. Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Clarinet and Piano opened the second half, with clarinetist Franklin Cohen finding fresh nuances in the well-known melodies and Orion Weiss providing stylish accompaniment.

Messiaen’s Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano was elegantly played by pianist Porat and violinist Bendix-Blagley, though it never developed any legs, perhaps because this early work seems so conventional in light of the composer’s later achievements. And a foursome of Weiss, deMaine, violinist Diana Cohen and violist Dimiti Murrath provided a satisfying, comfortable finish with an unabashedly romantic rendering of Schumann’s Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello. Featuring particularly sweet sounds from Cohen, it was both intelligent and accessible, a spirited refresher on a muggy evening.

The same might be said of the entire Friday program, which alternated familiar anchors with bold, modern innovations. Acoustics notwithstanding, it was an invigorating excursion.

For more on The Companion Guide to Rome: http://andrewnormanmusic.com/archives/45

Photo by Gary Adams