Monday, August 12, 2013


Blossom Music Center
August 11

An old friend with a flair for summer fare.

A pops concert with substance is not necessarily an oxymoron. Back in his old slot at the Blossom podium on Sunday night, Jahja Ling added some gravitas to a program of Rossini, Vivaldi and Mendelssohn while keeping the sound light and the tempo brisk, a perfect combination for a summer night.

What most impresses about Ling is how effortless he makes it look. The smooth, gliding conducting style, the lyrical quality he gives the music, the occasional casual touch – Ling is not above a shake of the hips to get the effect he wants – and his nonstop, 100-watt smile make it all seem like a relaxed meeting of old friends. Which in one sense it was, given Ling’s 21-year association with the Cleveland Orchestra (1984-2005), which included six seasons as director of the Blossom Festival.

He opened with the Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), using rifle-shot rolls of the snare drum to announce the piece and drive the introduction to Rossini’s beguiling melodies. The strings were as golden as the last rays of the setting sun, and Ling kept them moving, sometimes surging ahead of the orchestra and pulling the players along. The key to the piece is developing a headlong momentum without losing any of the detail, which Ling delineated nicely. As an opening confection, it was both thrilling and sweet.

The soloist for The Four Seasons was Ray Chen, a Taiwanese-Australian violinist who at 24 seems to have it all: impressive playing skills, a growing list of awards and appearances with major orchestras, and the kind of good looks and fashion sense that merit a spread in Vogue magazine. Oh, and a pretty nifty instrument, too, a 1702 Stradivarius with a dark, rich tone that sounded especially warm in contrast to the orchestra’s silken strings.

Young man with a Strad.
Chen can play – he knows how to get exactly the sounds he wants, and brings impeccable technique and focused intensity to his performance. He also brings a cheerful energy to the music, clearly enjoying his work. But The Four Seasons may not have been the best piece for his debut appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra. He veered back and forth between early and modern styles of playing, slipping into Baroque mode when accompanying the orchestra, then amping up the solos like a race car driver.

The modernist streak was so strong that during intermission, a musician in the audience noted Chen’s Armani sponsorship and compared him to Wayne Newton. This critic is inclined to give Chen the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that works by Prokofiev or Stravinsky, which he will be playing in Lucerne later this month, might be more in his wheelhouse. Though admittedly, they would not have drawn the capacity crowd that The Four Seasons did.

Ling closed with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish), keeping it upbeat and bright, even in the few darker passages. While the sound was not deeply developed or especially transparent, it flowed beautifully, a seamless and cohesive construction. The woodwinds had a marvelous floating quality, shining brightly above the melodies, and the strings soared, carrying an ebullient third movement to a triumphal finish. Overall, the reading encapsulated the entire program – pleasant and buoyant, with a palette and range that marked the hand of an experienced professional.

With a substantive touch for lighter fare.

For more on Jahja Ling:

For more on Ray Chen:

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