Friday, November 22, 2013


Finney Chapel
November 20

An opportunity to watch a virtuoso at work.

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma titled his latest Silk Road Ensemble release A Playlist Without Borders, reflecting the group’s international makeup and focus. That would also have been an appropriate title for his recital in Oberlin on Wednesday night, which covered a remarkable musical and geographic range, from 19th-century European Romanticism to modern Latin dance music. With longtime piano accompanist Kathryn Stott providing driving rhythms and tasty embellishment, Ma held a packed house spellbound.

Part of the attraction was the chemistry between the two players, who have been collaborating for nearly 30 years. They seem to communicate by telepathy, rarely glancing at each other while nailing fancy breaks, unusual timing and flashy finishes with razor-sharp precision. Their duets have a strong organic feel, with emotional passages swelling in tandem, or one instrument dropping back while the other articulates a sensitive line or inventive phrasing.

And they don’t need a single note of warm-up. From the opening bars of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, their sound was perfectly clean and well-defined, seamless in construction and elegant in execution. Each of the five movements had a distinctly different character, with Ma giving the music a lyrical quality – not a term one typically uses to describe Stravinsky. Light and playful in the duo’s spirited treatment, the suite made a lively, engaging opener.

Ma dug into his 2003 Obrigado Brazil album for a medley of three Latin songs, starting with Villa-Lobos’ “Alma Brasileira,” which featured Stott on lead. He brought dark emotional hues to Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” then played Camargo Guarnieri’s “Dansa Negra” as a dialogue with Stott, who set a snappy dance floor pace with rolling barrelhouse rhythms.

The mix of elements in de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas (Seven Spanish Folk Songs) was rendered with exceptional clarity. Stott set a tone of passionate intensity that Ma matched at times, or played against with incredibly fine, delicate lines suggesting the French impressionist influence. The rich array of moods and colors they created culminated in a smart, swirling treatment of a flamenco number, “Polo.”

Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), a seminal work in the chamber repertoire, includes a movement for cello and piano, “Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus” (In Praise of the Eternity of Jesus). Ma was brilliant in bringing its earthly anguish and spiritual yearning to life, holding long vibrato lines with his head tilted back and eyes closed, like a man in a trance. Which he apparently was. After drawing the piece to a whisper finish, he sat silent for almost a minute. Some musicians let the final notes reverberate and fade away for dramatic effect. But in this case it seemed Ma couldn’t move until his spirit returned from a faraway place to reinhabit his body.

After all those exotic excursions, it felt almost mundane to return to the mainstream canon for the closing work, Brahms’ Sonata No. 3. Ma and Stott gave it a brisk, animated reading, pumping some fresh energy into a staid classic. Ma showed masterful control of his instrument, particularly in a piece that was written for violin and piano. Playing the string part on cello is difficult enough; making it look easy is the work of a virtuoso.

Yo-Yo Ma makes everything he touches look easy, one of the reasons he occupies such a prominent and respected niche in the classical music world. Another is his open-heartedness and unfailing generosity. He came back for three encores after this performance – Elgar’s sweet Salut D’Amour, “Cristal” from the Obrigado Brazil album, and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, a sure crowd-pleaser. Audiences in Oberlin like to show their approval with their feet as well as their hands, so there was plenty of stamping accompanying the final rounds of applause.

This was the third time Ma performed in northeast Ohio over the past year, though the first in a chamber setting that gave the audience a close-up opportunity to watch him work. He throws himself completely into the music, playing every piece with a brilliant combination of technical finesse and double expression –the feeling he puts into the music, and the emotions on his face. At one point during the Oberlin recital, he looked ready to burst into tears.

That kind of naked emotional honesty establishes a powerful bond with the audience, and makes Ma’s departing smiles and goodbye waves seem real rather than forced. No one – not even the elderly gentleman sitting next to this critic who fell asleep – leaves his concerts unhappy.

For more on Yo-Yo Ma:

For more on Kathryn Stott:

Photo: Roger Mastroianni


Museum of Contemporary Art
November 14
Transformer Station
November 13

At 80, still pushing the electronic envelope.

They sing the body electric. But that doesn’t make all electronic musicians equal. Back-to-back concerts last week offered a rare opportunity to see two well-regarded practitioners in action, and to hear the difference between a technician and a true master of the form.

Morton Subotnick was mobbed by admirers after his Thursday night performance at MOCA, which packed the museum’s west lobby performance space. The enthusiastic turnout was a bit surprising, given the esoteric nature of the program, though certainly appropriate. Subotnick, 80, is one of the pioneers of American electronic music, a visionary composer who started incorporating tape-recorded sounds into his work in the late 1950s. He made history in 1967 with Silver Apples of the Moon, an album commissioned and released by Nonesuch Records that marked the first serious treatment of synthesized music.

Subotnick’s use of traditional elements like pitch, tone and rhythm helped give his work wide accessibility and applications; it’s been used in theater, dance pieces and live performances with musicians and singers. And he’s continued to pioneer new uses of technology, most recently using the iPad to teach music composition to young children.

His performance at MOCA started like the break of day, with small insect noises giving way to chirps and howls that were suddenly overwhelmed by monstrous mechanical noises, as if giant construction machinery were tearing into a forest. The noise faded to an amiable popping, and then a new set of sounds emerged – echoes bouncing around the quad speakers, bubbles, blips, low cycles, high-pitched whistling, metallic hissing and screeching. At one point a volcano of percussion erupted, like dozens of conga drums beating at once. Subotnick also used his voice – not for vocals, which showed up in occasional tape loops, but to create abstract noises that he could manipulate.

While the sheer variety and cacophony of sounds were riveting, most impressive was Subotnick’s musicality. Within the noise were clear structures, compositions built on melodies and variations. What’s different is that Subotnick uses electronic sounds instead of musical notes, which takes some getting used to. Once you’ve dialed into his vocabulary, however, distinct patterns and individual pieces become discernible. Some even sound like soloists are playing different parts.

Subotnick’s music may occupy a narrow niche, but there is no denying its intelligence and breathtaking inventiveness. Small wonder that his acolytes flooded the stage while his encore was still reverberating around the hall, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.

High-pitched pain.
By comparison, Mark Fell’s performance at the Transformer Station the previous night was one-dimensional. Fell, 47, is a British sound artist with a taste for techno who does installations as well as performances. His soundscapes are comparatively abstract, almost academic at times, and technically complex – a 2008 “generative sound piece” was composed for a 48-speaker system.

Fell sat cross-legged at a low table with a laptop, seemingly oblivious to the two dozen people sitting in front of him in scattered chairs or lying on floor mats. For the first 10 minutes or so of his 50-minute performance, only the barest buzz was audible from the six speakers surrounding the audience. Gradually the sound built to a sharp electric hum, then got louder and louder until it seemed capable of shattering eardrums. Essentially, it was one long crescendo, with only changes in volume and tone offering any variation.

Straight from this critic’s notebook, a small sampling of the time elapsed and aural impressions: 23 minutes: Layers of dysfunctional appliances; 27: A high-pitched whine like a mosquito in your ear; 29: A bathroom exhaust fan with bad bearings; 33: Airplane engines revving up; 35: The cyclotron on Forbidden Planet; 37: A freight train going 90 mph outside your bedroom window; 39: A teeth-rattling submarine engine room right next to the propellers.

Punishing stuff, though only one of the many directions electronic music has taken since Subotnick started playing with tapes. From dance clubs to conservatories, electronics have proven to be endlessly adaptable, with new possibilities opening up as the technology continues to evolve. Still, there’s nothing like hearing it from the source.

For more on Morton Subotnick:

For more on Mark Fell:

Subotnick photo: MOCA/Kory Dakin

Friday, November 15, 2013


Oberlin College
November 9

A wacky wicked witch with tasty plans for Hansel.

Anyone expecting a typical fairy tale opera in Oberlin this past weekend was in for a pleasant surprise. Instead, director Jonathon Field played Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel for laughs and splash, with animated characters in outrageous costumes poking, punching and brawling their way through big, colorful sets. German Romanticism was never so much fun.

Field, an associate professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, has a longstanding reputation as an innovative opera director. He was one of the first to use video-projected and computer-generated scenery, and has handled material ranging from Mozart and Rossini to Adams and Glass. Other contemporary work includes the American premiere of Lost Highway, an opera based on the David Lynch film, and the world premiere of the jazz opera Leave Me Alone.

When the curtain opened on Hänsel und Gretel Saturday night, it looked like the classic children’s story: an impoverished brother and sister working in a barren forest cottage, complaining of hunger pangs. But these were not helpless innocents. Hänsel (Marisa Novak in a trouser role) traded verbal and then physical jabs with Gretel (Alexis Aimé), and soon the two were squaring off like boxers. When their mother (Kayleigh Decker) came home she proved to be even more of a bruiser, whacking the kids around and, in a witty foretaste of the wicked witch, shoving Hänsel’s head into the fireplace.

Arriving after the rambunctious siblings were sent to the deepest part of the forest to pick strawberries, dad (Daveed Buzaglo) affectionately threw his wife to the floor and declared “I’ll give you a smack!” after she called him a “tavern cavalier.” In almost any other context, this would be domestic abuse. But Field’s choreography was superb, with the fights more like dance scenes and the spills decidedly slapstick. Brisk, colorful music from the pit helped keep the atmosphere light and the narrative in high gear.

As darkness closed in around the children in the forest, the music turned suspenseful without losing its grace and sparkle, and magical characters began to appear. The Sandman (Micaela Aldridge), looking like The Shadow, sang Hänsel and Gretel to sleep. A full moon rose and shattered in a cloud of pixie dust that brought 14 angels in white gowns onstage to surround and protect them. In contrast to the combative tone of the opening scenes, the ensemble piece was delicate and endearing, as soft as a goodnight kiss.

A different kind of wake-up call.
The second half opened with the Dew Sprite (Emily Peragine), a dizzy character in elaborate white fringe and silver glitter, awakening the children (and herself) with a magic hammer. Gretel was about to go after songbirds with a slingshot when the trees parted to reveal the gingerbread house, a Gaudi-inspired riot of pastels at impossible angles festooned with candy canes, sugar trim and gingerbread children – some dolls, others live faces embedded in the walls.

The witch (Karen Jesse) appeared first in dark notes in the music, then in an electric outfit straight out of Little Nemo in Slumberland, topped by a black bowler with feathers. The only nonstudent in the cast (though an ’04 Oberlin grad), Jesse made the most of her brief time onstage, showing great dramatic flair and a strong voice with a wicked cackle. Having Gretel shove her in the oven wasn’t enough for this production; her body was dragged out and Hänsel cut off her head, which he and Gretel stood holding during a concluding choral number that included their parents and children freed from the witch’s magic spell.

The gruesome touches reflected an understanding and appreciation of the source material, which has been sanitized in most modern collections of Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Field’s genius was in preserving that element while packaging it in a nonthreatening way, undercutting the horror with laughter. He was aided greatly by conductor Raphael Jiménez and the student orchestra, who kept the atmosphere bubbly and bright.

The student singers showed poise and promise, with particularly strong work from Kayleigh Decker. In some ways the sets were even more impressive, big and smart enough for a professional production. Even the supertitles got an occasional laugh, with lines like the witch’s reaction to Hänsel not being fat enough to eat: “Then pretty little Gretel is the blue-plate special.”

In all, a witty and entertaining production, and another reminder of how lucky we are to have Oberlin.

For more on the Oberlin Opera Theater Program:

For more on Karen Jesse:

Photos: Oberlin Conservatory/John Seyfried


E.J. Thomas Hall
November 12

The banjoist, center, was a neat fit with a string quartet.

The good thing about seeing the first show on the new Béla Fleck/Brooklyn Rider tour is that you get to hear the world premiere of...well, the piece actually didn’t have a name when the ensemble debuted it on Tuesday night. The not-so-good thing is that a lot of the songs are still rough, and in need of polishing.

That said, all five of the players are accomplished, innovative musicians, and anytime they get together it’s a special event. Oddly enough, their current collaboration had its genesis in empty space on a CD. After recording his 36-minute concerto The Impostor with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Fleck needed something to fill out the disc. He approached Brooklyn Rider with some sketches for a “banjo quintet,” and the result was a three-movement work titled Night Flight Over Water. That finished the CD and became one of the core pieces on the current tour.

The big question on Tuesday was what four strings and a banjo would sound like together. In his appearance as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra last December, Fleck played well, as did the orchestra. But the sounds just didn’t mix. No one has worked harder than Béla Fleck to expand the reach and possibilities of his instrument. In the end, however, there are some places that the limited tonal range of a banjo can’t go.

The string quartet turned out to be a much better fit. Long ago bluegrass and folk married banjo and fiddle, so the combination sounds right. More importantly, the ensemble isn’t a soloist playing with a backup band. They play like a five-man group, changing roles and taking turns on leads and solos. On some songs, Fleck took a back seat as part of a three-man rhythm section with cellist Eric Jacobsen and violist Nicholas Cords.

The full group warmed up with two vintage Flecktones numbers, “Next” and “The Landing.” Fresh arrangements gave both some bite. Then the quartet had the stage to themselves for Culai, a five-movement taste of Romanian gypsy music by Russian composer and violist Lev Zhurbin. With its virtuoso flourishes for each of the instruments, the piece plays to Brooklyn Rider’s strengths. But it was remarkably sedate, with only occasional flashes of the uptempo exuberance that characterizes most gypsy music. If the suite were being played by a Balkan weddings and funerals band, it would be mostly funeral music.

Fleck returned for the unnamed world premiere, which a member of the audience cleverly suggested be titled “Akronism.” That seems appropriate for a piece using a classical framework to explore an expansive contemporary musical terrain, giving each of the players a chance to improvise on the changing themes. They did an impressive job blending very fine string and banjo lines, though a brief detour into dissonance didn’t work. Overall, it was an interesting and ambitious piece that would benefit from some sharpening and shortening.

Fleck opened the second half with a solo set that included his usual nod to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme, this time combined with “Pop Goes the Weasel.” More interesting was a quiet song he wrote (so as not to disturb a new baby at home), a charming melodic strummer that called to mind Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey.” Fleck also played solo excerpts from his Banjo Concerto, which sounded better without an orchestra.

The quartet joined him for Night Flight Over Water, another wide-ranging excursion that was the most integrated piece of the night, with the players trading tight leads and licks and Fleck providing a driving rhythm. It was surprisingly uneven, virtuosic in parts and seemingly on the verge of falling apart in others. A week or two on the road should remedy that.

A smart arrangement and precision performance of João Gilberto’s “Undiú” drew the most enthusiastic applause of the night, perhaps because it offered a distinct melody after so much improv and abstract fare. The closing piece by violinist Colin Jacobsen featured the fanciest arrangements and tightest playing of the night, though didn’t merit much of a sendoff. The applause quickly died down when the band left the stage, precluding an encore.

Whatever its flaws, this quintet is fearless and imaginative in blending instruments, styles and influences from all over the world. Their live performances will get better. And hopefully their collaboration will continue, blazing new trails in American music.

For more on Brooklyn Rider:

For more on Béla Fleck:

Monday, November 11, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
November 6

The Queen's ladies set the vocal and sartorial tone.

Opera directors tend to approach Mozart with a certain reverence. Not so David Bamberger, the former Cleveland Opera impresario who now teaches opera and stages student productions at CIM. In a talk before last week’s premiere of The Magic Flute, he described it as the Star Wars of its time, a bit of pop fluff with an inexplicably long life. He also confided that he has grown to dislike the high priest Sarastro, dismissing him as a politician and a misogynist. “So I got rid of him!”

Sarastro was not totally gone from Bamberger’s production, but his prominence was greatly reduced, as were almost all the weightier elements of the opera. Instead it was a tongue-in-cheek romp, more Shakespearean comedy than Masonic idealism, filled with modern vernacular, whimsical props and the occasional sly aside (“Can’t you read the supertitles?”). It also had a smart postmodern sensibility, starting with the players gathering onstage to pick out costumes that looked like they had been culled from West Side thrift shops.

Bamberger likes to break the fourth wall, so it was no surprise that the action started with Tamino (David Fair) running through the audience, being chased by a Chinese New Year’s parade-style dragon. The three ladies who rescued him – Laurel Weir, Michelle Lajeunesse and Cynthia Skelley-Wohlschlager – set the vocal standard for the evening with a fine “beautiful boy” trio. Tamino was less impressive both as a singer and actor when he awoke, though Papageno (Brian James Myer) was strong from his opening “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja.”

Flash and dash.
The Queen of the Night (Samantha Farmilant) entered to strobe light flashes that comprised the most dramatic element of an otherwise spare set, and didn’t quite nail her coloratura lines, though she did better in the second half, when all the singers seemed more relaxed and settled in. The three young spirits (Halla Kalmansson, Victoria Kerr, Huiyu Zhang) looked like they had forgotten to take off their Halloween fright wigs, but sang beautifully, especially in the ensembles, and added an appropriately impish acting touch.

Acting was in general the weakest part of the performance, which is to be expected in a student production. Some of that was due to Bamberger deliberately stripping away the mystique of the roles – Pamina in a contemporary sweater and dress rather than a princess gown, and the spoken 
dialogue all in English with snappy slang like 
“These priests are touchy!”

So long, Sarastro.
But the music was where it belonged – front and center, well-played and expertly sung. One might have wished for a stronger Pamina (Allyson Dezii) or Monostatos (Corey Shotwell), but overall there was not a single bad voice in the cast, a reflection of the caliber of students CIM attracts and the training they receive. Sarastro’s (I Sheng Huang) bass was so deep and solid, he might have been a ringer brought in for the role. And the chorus, even (or maybe especially) with a preponderance of female voices, was spot-on.

The orchestra was even better, playing with precision and imbuing the music with a playful spirit and buoyancy. It is not a left-handed compliment to say that hidden in the pit, it was quickly forgotten. The best opera orchestras are usually invisible, integrated so seamlessly into the narrative – and in this case, often propelling it – that the audience gets swept along, never focusing on component parts of the whole. Conductor Harry Davidson and his players deserved every bit of the enthusiastic applause they received.

In keeping with Bamberger’s stated intention to put the future in the hands of a new generation, Sarastro and the Queen of the Night made their final exit up the aisles, leaving Tamino and Pamina at the center of a young, joyful retinue onstage. By then Tamino was dressed in a lime-green Sgt. Pepper costume. But at least nobody was pulling out their smartphones. Or light sabers. We’ll look for those at CIM’s new music concert at the planetarium in February.

For more on the production:

For more on David Bamberger:

Photos: CIM/LDennison


Severance Hall
November 3

At 34, already an experienced hand at the podium.

Talk about setting the bar high: For his Severance Hall debut with the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, new Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell programmed three 20th-century works, two of which would challenge any professional orchestra, along with Mussorgskyʼs Pictures at an Exhibition. Thatʼs beyond bold.

But itʼs entirely in keeping with the career arc of Mitchell, 34, whose youthful demeanor and appearance belie his experience. A Seattle native who studied under conducting giants Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, Mitchell spent four seasons as Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony, which he led in over 100 performances, and three years as Music Director of the Moores Opera Center in Houston. He worked with Masur for three and a half years as Assistant Conductor of the Orchestre National de France in Paris, and just started his fourth season as Music Director of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, which has broken attendance records under his leadership.

After a competitive two-day audition in January, Mitchell was hired to replace James Feddeck as the new Music Director of COYO and Assistant Conductor of the parent orchestra (meaning he has to be ready to replace Franz Welser-Möst or any other conductor at a momentʼs notice). In an interview several weeks ago, Mitchell was almost giddy with excitement and suitably impressed with the Youth Orchestra. “Theyʼre amazingly talented musicians,” he said, “just as responsive as most of the professional orchestras Iʼve worked with.”

Mitchell seemed determined to put that agility to test in his first Severance appearance with the orchestra, which opened with a rare upbeat piece by Shostakovich, his 1954 Festive Overture. The players responded with a big, bright sound, particularly in the horns, and dexterous work in the strings and woodwinds. It was a brief but convincing display of outsized skills.

That turned out to be only a warm-up for Stravinskyʼs Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a fiendishly difficult tonal exercise for horns and woodwinds. The horns lost some of their luster in this piece, even sounding sour at times. But the woodwinds were sharp and clear, and the fractured melodies fit together neatly. If the air went out of it at the end, it was nonetheless a smart, earnest take on a very sophisticated piece of music.

The horns and woodwinds then left the stage and the remainder of the orchestra returned for Wojciech Kilarʼs Orawa for strings. A lightning-quick 1988 work in a minimalist vein, Orawa builds a pulsing tempo and exotic textures one instrument at a time, culminating in a swirling maelstrom of epic proportions. The players handled it with alacrity and poise, showing remarkable discipline and precision for an 80-piece ensemble.

Mitchell set a brisk pace for Pictures at an Exhibition, keeping the sound big rather than heavy, sometimes at the expense of substance. And the playing was uneven, especially in the horns and woodwind solos. The piece finally hit stride in the “Limoges,” which captured the colorful mayhem of the marketplace very well, then turned appropriately spooky in the “Catacombs,” with the ensuing “Promenade” featuring tense, sustained strings that were among the best moments of the afternoon. The closing “Great Gate of Kiev” started with a fierce intensity that the players couldnʼt quite maintain. But overall the piece had a notably professional gloss, and finished with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Itʼs tempting to qualify reviews of COYO with caveats about the playersʼ ages (12-18) and lack of experience. But the ensemble doesnʼt present itself that way. Members have to audition to join, are mentored by Cleveland Orchestra musicians, and rehearse steadily throughout the year. So their professional posture and sound merits the same critical appraisal that the adults get. And if their ambitious start with Mitchell is any indication, thereʼs an exciting two years ahead for players and audiences alike.

For more on the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra:

For more on Brett Mitchell:

Photo by Gregg Barckholtz

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
October 30
November 1

Forging new directions in American music.

One of the defining trends in music in recent years has been crossover – artists playing outside their genres, or teaming up with unlikely partners. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and classical singer Anne Sofie von Otter produced a memorable recording (Love Songs) in 2010, followed by a successful world tour together. Banjo superstar Béla Fleck has practically made a second career out of working with classical musicians, playing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra on his latest release and currently touring with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

Even by those standards, last week’s concerts at the Cleveland Museum of Art were exceptional.

On Wednesday night American violinist and composer Mark O’Connor, looking like a professor with his best students in tow, gave an engaging lesson in the history of American music. O’Connor is a gifted player who won national titles in fiddle, guitar and mandolin competitions as a teenager, and became a protégé of two string savants: Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and French violinist Stephane Grappelli. While much of O’Connor’s subsequent work has been in the classical genre, he is also a noted authority on American idioms like bluegrass, jazz and country music.

O’Connor contends that all native American music sprang from the hoedown, which he used as a point of departure in introducing the members of his quartet, playing separate duets with each. Cellist Patrice Jackson joined him for Limerock, a traditional hoedown tune, followed by violist Gillian Gallagher for an original jig, and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins for an original jazz/blues number. It was all Jackson and Gallagher could do to keep up with O’Connor’s lightning pace in the dances. Hall-Tompkins is a more assured performer who matched O’Connor’s solos and added a soulful flavor to her piece.

The full quartet came out for O’Connor’s String Quartet No. 2 “Bluegrass,” which is a remarkable work. It uses the vocabulary of bluegrass music in a classical structure to produce a true synthesis, a rare achievement across genres. The sound ranges from Béla Bartók to Bill Monroe, even hitting Monroe’s trademark “high lonesome” tone at times. The piece runs out of ideas in the final movement, but the first three are dazzling, demanding a hybrid (and complicated) style of playing that the quartet handled with aplomb.

O’Connor opened the second half with a solo improv that demonstrated a range of techniques and his complete mastery of his instrument, then brought the group out for his String Quartet No. 3 “Old Time.” More sophisticated than No. 2, the piece was reminiscent of David Grisman’s brand of progressive bluegrass, though more intricate, with a minimalist Philip Glass-style finish. An encore of O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz put a spirited finish on a very satisfying blend of entertainment and erudition.

Leading a Balkan tour.
Two nights later, Jordi Savall, the Spanish musicologist and viola da gamba player who continues to redefine European early music, brought his Hésperion XXI ensemble to CMA for a program exploring the roots of Balkan music. Savall crosses countries and eras rather than musical genres. But like O’Connor, he combines virtuoso playing skills with outstanding scholarship, and packages it all in enchanting, accessible performances.

This one used the cycles of life, both individually and seasonally, as a framework for selections ranging from a Bulgarian lullaby to Greek dances. Exotic yet simple in form, the music had a marked Mideastern flavor, featuring traditional instruments like a duduk, qanun, santur and kaval played by specialists from the instruments’ native countries. A group of five vocalists took turns singing solo, or in duets or ensembles. Like the musicians, each of them brought native knowledge and nuances to the songs, with Greek singer Irini Derebei showing particularly fine range and emotion.

Nearly all the music came at a slow, steady tempo, which dragged after a while, at least to Western ears. The songs also began to sound the same, picking up personality mostly in the vocals. Still, the ensemble was able to imbue them with color and feeling, especially in the players’ solos. And the musical tour of the Balkans before that term became a catchword for fragmentation and strife was fascinating.

Performances of this caliber don’t come through town very often, much less two in three nights. It’s edifying and comforting to know that while the museum director’s abrupt resignation dominates the daily headlines, CMA’s fine musical programming marches on.

For more on Mark O’Connor:

For more on Jordi Savall:

O'Connor quartet photo by Lucian Bartosik.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Severance Hall
October 31

Singing with divine inspiration.

I like that Messiaen!”

When a regular in the dress circle jumps up to express that kind of enthusiasm, you know you’ve nailed the piece. Or at least offered a break from the heavyweight fare the orchestra has been delivering the past couple weeks. The Beethoven overload continued through much of the past weekend, brightened by a surprisingly agile Mass in C major. And the turn to 20th-century French spiritualism was divine.

Which was no accident. The Thursday and Saturday programs focused on two very different varieties of religious experience. Beethoven’s Mass sets the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy to music with a colorful Romantic flair that embodies earthly joys as much as spiritual aspirations. Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine (Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence) is a trio of modernist psalms characterized by the composer’s pantheism and use of unorthodox orchestration. Paired, they offer strikingly different ways to worship, with both stretching traditional notions of prayer.

Beethoven’s Mass is a mid-career work (1807) that in retrospect sounds less like a church service than a preview of the coming symphonies – radiant, heroic, bursting with ideas and energy. With four soloists and a full chorus, the piece is actually more of an oratorio, though the vocalists get few individual moments in the spotlight. Conductor Franz Welser-Möst chose four with whom he works on a regular basis: soprano Luba Orgonášová, mezzo Kelley O’Connor, tenor Herbert Lippert and baritone Ruben Drole. Individually they were competent but as a quartet they were outstanding, their voices a beautiful fit in harmony.

The orchestra was light and vibrant, playing with a pulse that throbbed at times like a beating heart. But the real star of the piece was the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, eight rows of singers packed wall-to-wall behind the musicians. They were lustrous, reaching piercing highs in the “Gloria” and dropping to a mesmerizing sotto voce for parts of the concluding “Agnus Dei.” Most impressive was the chorus’s three-dimensional sound, layers within layers that gave the music a shimmering, almost visible quality. And with 130 voices reverberating off the back wall of the Severance stage, the sound reached for the heavens in both volume and tone.

What usually gets the most attention in Messaien’s Petites Liturgies is the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument developed in the late 1920s that looks like a small, spare organ with outsized speakers. The composer used it regularly, though in this piece its space-age sound tends to get lost in the larger mix of strings, percussion and women’s voices. Especially these voices – golden, ethereal and remarkably versatile, seamlessly integrating the chirps of the second movement and excited chattering of the third.

The lead voice in Petites Liturgies actually belongs to the piano, a series of clattering, dissonant phrases that contrast sharply with the spiritual atmosphere set by the strings, voices and text like “My Jesus, my stillness.” Pianist Joela Jones spoke with precision and clarity, with Welser-Möst cueing off her lines to modulate melodies that could whip into a maelstrom or dissipate into gossamer threads. A final buildup to slashing lines that broke and faded out with delicate reverberations was enough to bring audience members to their feet – and in one case, yell out approval.

The choice of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as the middle selection on the program was puzzling. Along with creating a disconcerting break in the religious theme and intensity of the concert, it was a repeat – Welser-Möst did it with the orchestra at Blossom just four months ago. Or perhaps Blossom counts as an out-of-town venue. Either way, the piece sounded exactly the same, appropriately taut, dark-toned and enigmatic. It’s unlikely the Grosse Fugue will get a better reading from an American orchestra. But as this space noted last week, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

The orchestra is taking variations of the program on tour through Hamburg, Frankfurt, Paris, Luxembourg, Cologne, Linz and Vienna this month. It will be interesting to see what the Europeans make of it.

For a look at the ondes martenot:

Photo by Roger Mastroianni