Sunday, September 29, 2013


Severance Hall
September 27

A skilled purveyor of the Russian sound.

From the opening notes at Severance Hall on Friday night, it was clear that guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky had brought more than an outstanding pedigree with him. Under his baton, the Cleveland Orchestra sounded warm and full-blooded, with its trademark silken strings glistening even more than usual. If the sound wasn’t entirely Russian, it was a lot closer to Moscow than Cleveland.

Which was no surprise. The best conductors can transform the sound of a skilled orchestra to fit the program, particularly when the music is in their blood. Trained at the Leningrad Conservatory and apprenticed to the Moscow Philharmonic, Sinaisky is currently Music Director and Chief Conductor at Russia’s crown cultural jewel, the Bolshoi Theatre. In concert and opera halls throughout Europe, he has shown a remarkable ability to bring the Russian repertoire to life with British, German, Czech and other orchestras.

The opening piece was a treat – Anatoly Liadov’s seldom-performed Eight Russian Folk Songs. A set of miniatures that range from meditative to merry, the songs are relatively simple in form but with enough variety and fine detail to give the conductor something to work with. By the second song, “Kolyada,” Sinaisky had the orchestra in a rich emotional vein, evoking tender feelings of a beloved homeland with the aid of some particularly fine cello work by Richard Weiss.

One of Sinaisky’s trademarks is his combination of warmth and precision, which came to the fore in songs like the “Dance of the Gnat” and “Tale of the Bird.” Light and playful, they were also sparkling displays of sharp, carefully crafted timing and playing. Sweet in tone and smart in execution, Liadov’s songs were a tasty apertif.

Classical jazz.
Kirill Gerstein joined Sinaisky for the centerpiece of the evening, Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto No. 1. Gerstein was born in Russia but trained mostly in the U.S., at Berklee and Tanglewood. The jazz influences that he absorbed listening to his parents’ record collection as a child are clear in his style, which is technically fluent but hard and clipped, with phrasing that borders on improvisation. At times, it sounds like a meeting of two musical languages.

This was particularly evident in the Tchaikovsky concerto, an orchestral staple weighted even more by a century of tradition. Gerstein gave it a modern burnish, biting off notes and energizing the solo passages with his own distinctive breaks and rhythms. Sinaisky gave him all the room he wanted, but otherwise kept the orchestra at high volume, the sound brimming with colors and energy.

Prokofievs Symphony No. 3 was pieced together from material that started as an opera, and it sounds like it, with sections that set atmosphere or describe specific characters. This played to one of Sinaisky's strengths, and his version of the symphony was a study in how to knit together seemingly disparate elements in seamless fashion. Colors flitted in and out of the sound, textures waxed and waned, sharp dissonances flashed like sudden flames – and beneath it all, the bottom pulsed steadily, like blood from a beating heart. It was a riveting performance, particularly of a piece that breaks so many structural rules.

Percussion builds throughout the symphony into a final explosion capped by a reverberating gong, which provided an appropriate close to an evening of fresh, engaging music. And a good transition to that other Russian master of symphonic percussion – Dmitri Shostakovich, who will share the stage in a few weeks with Beethoven in a festival titled “Fate and Freedom.” Even Sinaisky would find that pairing a challenge.

For more on Kirill Gerstein:


Central Europe

In Prague, sacred music by Monteverdi.

A slave to the European sound, Mr. Culture started the new season in the Czech Republic, where two festivals, an opera premiere and a Baroque ensemble offered an enticing taste of the Old World. As it turned out, many of the flavors proved to be distinctly modern.

That was no surprise in Ostrava, an industrial city in the northeast corner of the country that bears more than a passing resemblance to Cleveland, with abandoned factories dotting the landscape. Every two years, the city hosts one of the best modern music events in Europe – Ostrava Days, a gathering of students, players and composers modeled after Darmstadt. Led by Petr Kotík, a Czech expat who became part of the downtown scene in New York, the festival brought together an international group of 35 students and composers like Carola Bauckholt and Christian Wolff for two weeks of workshops before unleashing 10 days of performances.

Harris & Harris.
The caliber of the concerts was exceptional, a bracing reminder of what modern music can sound like when played by musicians who specialize in it. During an evening of solos and duets, New York-based violinist Pauline Kim Harris gave a fierce, virtuoso account of John Zorn’s Passagen that nearly set her instrument on fire. The following night, her husband Conrad Harris played riveting solos in a performance of Iannis Xenakis’ Dox-Orkh with the Janáček Philharmonic.

One of the hallmarks of Ostrava Days is its mix of student and professional works on the programs. Juxtaposed, it’s often hard to tell them apart. Student composer Daniel Ting-cheung Lo’s Rude Awakening was as good an evocation of a placid scene shattered by a sudden storm as this critic has ever heard. In Iranian student Idin Samimim Mofakham’s Mirage, the percussionist “played” a large pan of water. Pieces like these sat comfortably alongside Cage, Berio, Varèse, Glass and Feldman, providing thrilling evenings of mind-expanding music.

In Prague a week later, the Czech Philharmonic opened the Dvořák’s Prague festival with two stellar guests: American cellist Alisa Weilerstein and Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. After just two previous appearances, Weilerstein has quickly become a favorite in Prague, recording Dvořák’s Cello concerto No. 2 in B minor with the orchestra earlier this year and returning to perform it at the festival. Her warm, technically fluid style is a perfect fit with the Czech sound.

Penderecki at 80.
Penderecki, who is celebrating his 80th birthday with appearances at tributes all over the world this year, took the stage at the Rudolfinum after the orchestra played a hypnotic version of the adagio from his third symphony under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek. Basking in enthusiastic applause, the composer looked fit and happy. He looked even happier the following night at the Polish Embassy, where violinist Patrycja Piekutowska and pianist Beata Bilińska played a finely crafted set of his chamber works, which they recorded under his tutelage in 2004. The homage was well-deserved and the opportunity to see Penderecki and hear his work on two consecutive nights was a gift from the gods.

Just a few days before he was at Severance Hall to help open the Cleveland Orchestra’s season, Italian maestro Fabio Luisi was at St. Vitus Cathedral leading a breathtaking performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Even in the challenging acoustics of the cavernous space, the sound was lush and glorious, with Luisi striking the fine balance between music and vocals that has characterized his work as Chief Conductor at the Met. For après-concert aficionados, the opportunity to share a crowded pub with members of the Czech Philharmonic banging back Pilsner Urquells was also a treat.

A fine showing by Rachlin.
Other standout concerts included a recital by Russian piano prodigy Evgeny Kissin – more on him in the sidebar. For this critic, the single most impressive musician in the festival was Lithuanian violinist and violist Julian Rachlin. Players all talk about the primacy of the music, but Rachlin is one of the rare performers who actually honors that, subsuming his ego and giving his considerable talents completely over to the composer’s work and intent. Playing with Russian pianist Magda Amara, he offered exquisite versions of chamber works by Brahms, Dvořák and Franck.

The wild card in the festival was the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, led by Tan Lihua. Though he was trained in China, Tan is a Dvořák devotee who has been conducting performances of the composer’s symphonies at concert halls around the world for 20 years. Like other musicians from his country, he is determined to show that Easterners can play the classical canon as well as their Western counterparts. After sitting through two Dvořák symphonies (No. 3 and No. 4) and five encores by the Beijing orchestra, this critic was only half-convinced. Technically, the Chinese can play. But never with the emotional expression and depth of feeling that Europeans bring to the stage.

Many Central and European countries are still struggling to come to grips with their communist past. Given the immensity and complexity of the task, it’s not surprising that art and music have proven to be two of the best outlets. Czech composer Aleš Březina took on the troubling subject of the communist show trials in his 2008 chamber opera Zítra se bude... (Tomorrow There Will Be...). This season he’s back with Toufar, another chamber opera that draws heavily on archival materials to recount the story of Fr. Josef Toufar, a Catholic priest who was tortured to death by the communists after a miracle allegedly happened at his village church in central Bohemia in late 1949.

Frighteningly effective.
Performed entirely in Czech, the piece is often obscure for a foreigner. But with veteran singer and actress Soňa Červená giving a frightening portrayal of communist bureaucrats, and Březina’s score offering chillingly disconcerting accompaniment, the production packs an emotional wallop. Particularly effective is the use of a propaganda film the communists made trying to debunk the miracle. Just a few minutes of footage is enough to offer a revealing look behind the Iron Curtain that fell across Central and Eastern Europe for the next 40 years.

To soothe the spirit, there is nothing like an evening with Collegium 1704, one of the finest Baroque ensembles in Central Europe. The group is led by Václav Luks, a conductor, harpsichord player and scholar who often tracks down original manuscripts in search of new approaches to familiar works. His ensemble just released a recording of Bach’s Mass in B minor that is markedly different from what has become the standard version throughout Europe. “It would be difficult for a German ensemble to do something different with this piece, because they are weighed down by tradition,” he said at a news conference. “We feel we have an original view of it, and are doing it the way Bach wanted it performed.”

Luks’ scholarship and attention to detail made for a fine night of Monteverdi to open Collegium 1704’s new season. A program of six sacred pieces performed by eight singers and six musicians (on period instruments, naturally) at the splendiferous Church of St. Simon and Jude brought to life the composer’s inspirational work at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Delicately rendered, with a light touch on the instruments supporting rich polyphonic vocals, the music offered an enchanting journey to another time.

And an exhilarating departure point for a return to the New World.

For more on Dvořák’s Prague:

For more on Collegium 1704: