Tuesday, July 9, 2013


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

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