Monday, April 21, 2014


Severance Hall
April 19

A great fit with the hometown band.

Herbert Blomstedt is a master technician, a well-traveled conductor who brings great experience and intelligence to his work. At 86, he specializes in spirited treatments of familiar warhorses, giving them new life and flair. He did that with mixed results at Severance on Saturday night, crafting a lush, radiant version of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and a smart treatment of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor that was marred by technical problems.

The Dvořák concerto featured soloist Mark Kosower, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal cellist. A technically dazzling player, Kosower gave the piece a cool reading, precise and restrained, a note-perfect performance that seemed bloodless at times. Even the deep, gut-wrenching reaches of the second movement sounded comparatively tame. The part calls for considerable skill, but in Kosower’s hands it was almost entirely an intellectual exercise, with little emotional content.

At least that the audience could hear. Kosower was drowned out at regular intervals by the orchestra, a surprising lack of balance – especially considering the fine subtleties and shading that Blomstedt created within the orchestra. His approach to the concerto was bracing, with horns that usually take a backseat putting bright colors in the sound and a charge in the music. Careful layering, rich textures and vivid woodwinds provided fine details in an authoritative interpretation that was a model of craftsmanship.

Except when it stepped on the cello lines. One could argue whether this was the conductor or the soloist’s fault; a more impassioned player might have risen above the orchestra. But Kosower already seemed to be sacrificing expression for volume. And normally the balance is worked out in rehearsal. Still, both Blomstedt and Kosower were on point for a thrilling finish, which brought the audience to its feet with a big hometown cheer for the cellist.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony was a study in how to freshen a well-known work. Blomstedt knows it so well that he didn’t even need a score to conduct. After a quiet, deliberate opening, he quickly stepped up the pace and tone, imbuing the melodies with a warm, emotional sweep and opening up the march section to epic dimensions.

The grandeur of Tchaikovsky’s work can turn plodding in less experienced hands, but Blomstedt kept the pacing nimble and the sound flowing, unabashedly romantic in the melodies of the second movement and bold in the big dynamics of the third. The latter unfolded like a succession of crashing waves, propelling the listener to a pounding conclusion. And Blomstedt’s control in the muted finale was superb.

The players stayed in their seats during one of the curtain calls to applaud the conductor, who seemed to share their affection and admiration. It was a rewarding moment for the audience as well, an acknowledgment of the great music that world-class professionals can create together.


Cleveland Museum of Art
April 12

World-class skills in a throwback setting.

Style, technique, an original approach, a brilliant discography, even an exemplary profile offstage – Midori has it all. What impresses in live performances is her intelligence, her deep understanding of the material
and ability to articulate a wide range of visions and voices.

The Japanese violinist was in Cleveland as part of CMA’s stellar “Masters of the Violin” series with frequent piano accompanist Özgür Aydin. They opened with delicate Debussy, ventured into the dark rigors of Shostakovich, then served up a second half straight from the heart of the classical canon, with standards by Beethoven and Schubert.

Midori’s uncommon facility stems partly from her virtuoso playing skills. But she also devotes a great deal of thought to what she plays, to the point of writing her own program notes. When she gives a recital, Midori doesn’t so much play the pieces as inhabit them, taking on the composer’s persona, period and ideas. Some are a better fit than others – Debussy, for example, a perfect match for her achingly sweet sound, Shostakovich not so much. But her feel for the material is masterful, no matter what the piece.

Debussy’s Sonata in G minor was a carefully crafted exercise in atmospherics, with Aydin adding some lyrical heft to Midori’s airy string lines, rendered in fine, bright colors that coalesced into brilliant shimmers. The pianist’s liquid flow on the keyboard swelled with occasional dark undercurrents, setting up dazzling violin runs.

Just as impressive as the duo’s technical skills was their presentation of the piece as a dialogue – of sorts. Rather than accompany one another, the piano and violin jostle together in a running exchange of motifs and melodies, each seeming to push the other to greater heights. In Aydin and Midori’s hands the two parts were beautifully linked, played in matching dynamics and tempos while maintaining separate, complementary identities.

The duo gave Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (Op. 134) the sweetest treatment it will ever get, without a single harsh note from the keyboard and even the dissonant violin lines softened to an agreeable luster. Aydin provided a dramatic bottom and controlled tumult in his solo passages, freeing Midori to focus on the frantic violin runs that rise to a fever pitch in the second movement, then subside to an extended elegy in the third. That final movement is a complex, shifting landscape of moods and textures that the duo handled with aplomb.

Beethoven’s Sonata in G major was a surprise: Stately, formal, almost reverential in tone and character, like a hymn. Given the flair the duo showed for Shostakovich, Beethoven seemed primed for an exuberant burst of energy. Instead, they went the other way, opting for refined elegance. It was like a throwback to true chamber music, played in a smart but subdued style in an intimate setting where nuance matters more than volume. Midori rendered the piece with a heartbreaking tenderness that few violinists, even with a 1734 Guarneri in their hands, can match.

Schubert’s Rondo brilliant in B minor was a return to classic form, boldly stated and cleanly played, with not much more than a lyrical quality shading a no-frills interpretation. The flashy finish makes it natural closer, but on most programs it likely would have been at or near the top, establishing a stylistic baseline before the players ventured into unconventional territory. In this case it was like a coda, a reminder that after all the stylistic excursions, Midori and Aydin were equally capable of playing first-rate, straight-ahead chamber music.

The entire concert could have taken place in a salon, which was refreshing. It’s hard to see a performance nowadays without looking through a clutter of wires, mike stands and other electronic paraphernalia. This was pure – two musicians onstage with their instruments, and nothing else. For a performance of this caliber, nothing else was needed.

For more on Midori:

The final concert in the Masters of the Violin series features one of the great names in world music: Roby Lakatos, King of the Gypsy Violinists. For more:

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Severance Hall
April 10

An elegant style and brilliant technique.

Yuja Wang prowls the keyboard like a cat, with an unbelievably soft touch and reflexes that can go from languid to lightning-quick in an instant. At one point in her Thursday night performance, her hands were a blur, flying through Rachmaninoff faster than the eye could follow. If not the deepest interpretation of the Russian composer’s daunting Piano Concerto No. 3, it was a bravura display of sheer skill and surprising power.

Which made it a good fit with the rest of the program and the conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero, who brings a bright, sunny sound to everything he touches. In his hands the lineup of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov was a night of Russian lite, pleasant melodic takes on material that usually gets a darker reading.

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (No. 1) is, as the name suggests, a relatively tame, conventional piece, which made it an ideal opener. Guerrero handled it in a brisk, breezy manner, putting a sparkle on the melodies and a buoyant quality in the sound. The music was graceful at times, more like a Viennese waltz than a Russian symphony, only acquiring a bite at the very end. That was partly a function of Guerrero conducting without a baton, cuing the sections with twirling fingers.

Yuja Wang is a deceptive performer. In her publicity materials she looks more like a fashion model than a concert pianist, given to short, tight dresses and spike heels. In person she appears to be a diminutive Asian with good taste in evening gowns – until she sits down to play. Then she owns her instrument, performing with remarkable facility and impressive authority in a wonderfully fluid, legato style. Her soft touch takes the edge off even the harshest passages, but she gives away nothing to the orchestra in dynamics, and can set off colorful explosions of aural fireworks.

That was clear in the cadenzas of the first movement, brilliant displays of dexterity that cooed softly one moment, then burst into fiery runs. Those are as difficult as they look, and what distinguishes a great pianist is not just the ability to play them, but to maintain a personal voice and approach through the fierce challenges they pose. Wang never lost her liquid flow and elegant touch, which were a good match with Guerrero’s lighthearted, exuberant sound.

Wang will sacrifice some precision for style, though with Rachmaninoff, it doesn’t really matter – in the blizzard of notes, nobody misses one or two. And No. 3 is a serious workout. By the end of it, Wang was breathing hard, like a runner at the finish line. And still looking gorgeous.

After intermission, the program concluded with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, another charming and comparatively lightweight number. Guerrero gave it lots of color, drawing some fine solos from the orchestra’s stellar woodwinds. And concertmaster William Preucil and harpist Trina Struble offered a sweet version of the title character’s signature line.

If not thunder from the steppes, the concert offered a reminder that Russian music has its lighter moments, which Guerrero brought to life in well-articulated fashion. Given the country’s warmongering in other theaters these days, maybe that was the best way to go.

For more on Yuja Wang:

Photo by Gan Yuan


Plymouth Church
April 8

A distinctive voice from Central Europe.

There are two ways to play classical music. One is straightforward, with absolute devotion what appears in the score – no more, no less. The other is interpretive, giving the music a fresh face with an original style or personal approach. The very best artists combine the two, bringing new dimensions to rigorous performance standards.

The Pavel Haas Quartet does that and more. Trained in Central Europe, the group embodies a long tradition of precision technique and deep expression, music played from the heart with razor-sharp technical skill. Beyond that, the ensemble’s style is modern and distinctly its own – passionate, intensely focused, fiercely elegant. It is a tightly disciplined approach that runs the music to thrilling extremes, then stops just short of going over the edge.

This style has won the group international acclaim, starting with winning the prestigious Paolo Borciani competition in Italy in 2005. Subsequent CD releases have drawn rave reviews, including a Gramophone Recording of the Year award for the 2010 “Dvořák String Quartets.” And the group is in constant demand on the concert circuit, with performances scheduled in coming months at the Prague Spring, Aldeburgh, Edinburgh and Schubertiade festivals.

At Plymouth Church last week, it was easy to see why. The program opened with Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, a piece as gripping as any in the literature. “This is something special for us,” cellist Peter Jarůšek acknowledged afterward, a work with deep roots in the players’ home country, written in the composer’s distinctive (and complex) musical language. It was mesmerizing, played with wrenching feeling and absolute command, almost startling in its sharp breaks and explosive sound.

Just as captivating was the sense of atmosphere the group created, especially in a part of the world where Janáček’s work is not often heard. It was as if a voice had spoken from thousands of miles and decades away, fully realized and emotionally intact, with all the angst and dark drama of the music still raw on its jagged surface.

Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, another seldom-heard work, was a technical tour de force, with glistening violin lines floating ethereally one moment, then dashing off into crisp, cascading runs the next. The piece sets off contrasting bottom and top tones throughout, an effect nicely articulated by the ensemble in harmonies that occasionally sounded like entirely different instruments – an organ at one point, an accordion at another. The soundscape was fascinating, beautifully drawn in vivid colors and fine stylistic nuances.

The group finished with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8, putting its own distinctive stamp on the piece. Had it been first on the program, it might not have worked; the passion, phrasing and sheer power of the playing would have seemed out of place. But with the ensemble’s style well-established, the piece pulsed with radiant energy and irresistible driving rhythms. More lyrical than the previous pieces, it was by turns dark, lustrous, elegant and fiery, building to a final movement played at a blistering pace. Quicksilver lines darted and sparks flew as the music took on a life its own, the four instruments speaking in a single, organic voice.

An encore of a Dvořák waltz offered a melodic and warmly emotional return to the group’s roots, again with a keen balance of technique and expression. When the players finally left the stage, it was like waking from a dream – their performance had been spellbinding.

All dreams should be that good.

For more on the Pavel Haas Quartet:

The next Cleveland Chamber Music Society concert features another fearless young group, eighth blackbird. Details at:

Photo by Marco Borggreve

Monday, March 31, 2014


Severance Hall
March 28

A packed house onstage and in the audience.

One of hallmarks of Cleveland’s cultural institutions is outreach. Far from the stereotype of refined music or precious art kept high in ivory towers for a privileged few, the doors are thrown open here to the broadest possible audience. One need look no further than Severance Hall for examples like the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert, or the free community concert the orchestra is giving on April 18.

On Friday night, the Cleveland Institute of Music took inclusion a step further by bringing community members on stage with the CIM Orchestra for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Severance has certainly seen better performances of the piece, but few with as much heart.

Joining the student orchestra were four professional vocalists, student singers from CIM, instrumentalists and singers from Cleveland School of the Arts, the Singer’s Club of Cleveland, and members of the Antioch Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir. That totaled about 260 people packed wall-to-wall on the stage, which looked more like a convention than a concert.

In opening remarks, CIM President Joel Smirnoff noted the diversity of the performers and how it reflected the themes of idealism and brotherhood in Beethoven’s crowning work. “Take a good look around you tonight,” he encouraged an equally jam-packed audience. “Try to savor these moments as our community gathers together to find meaning at the end of a work day in a symphony based on life’s culture, life’s tragedy and life’s joy.”

Before he took the helm at CIM, Smirnoff was a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet and an active conductor. He still picks up the baton occasionally, as he did at this concert, ducking into the wings after his speech and then reemerging to lead a sharp, authoritative start on the symphony.

The CIM Orchestra is noted for the professional caliber of its sound and fearlessness in taking on difficult pieces, qualities that were quickly evident. The music had depth and a crisp edge, with some notable bite in the brass. The second movement rolled out like thunder with powerful rhythmic intensity, and the third opened with wonderful silken violins, one of the trademark characteristics of the Cleveland Orchestra sound. By osmosis or design, the student players did a great job emulating it.

A smart dialogue between the horns and low strings opened the fourth movement, followed by the famous theme stated first by the cellos and bass in tones as rich and well-drawn as one would hear from a professional ensemble. As the theme blossomed and the voices joined in, the four soloists added color, though not much in the way of standout vocals. The choral groups were almost staggering in their power, a great burst of sound exploding from the back of the stage that captured the radiant spirit and exuberance of the finale.

Were one to apply strict critical standards to the performance, there would be much to dissect. The playing was wildly uneven, particularly in the woodwinds, which veered from sounding brilliant to nearly falling apart. Big, bold sections fared better than subtleties, and Smirnoff could never get the balance quite right, with the horns sitting on top of the strings for most of the night rather than complementing them. And for all its power and energy, the giant chorus sounded like mush by the end of the performance, a tidal wave of sound without any definition.

But it would be churlish to apply professional criteria to a community celebration, particularly one that so richly embodied the ideas of not just a piece of music, but a seminal work of Western art. The outsized gathering of disparate races, voices and skill levels on a single stage was itself an inspirational statement. That they could all come together in an emotionally rewarding experience for both the players and audience was a measure of how far enthusiasm and noble aspirations can carry a performance.

For more on the CIM Orchestra:


Severance Hall
March 27

Still a favorite with Cleveland audiences.

By the time the concert ended on Thursday night, even the Cleveland Orchestra players were applauding conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. That echoed the warm welcome the Music Director Laureate received at the beginning of the evening from an appreciative hometown audience, whom he rewarded with two Schumann sweets.

More than 10 years after his departure, von Dohnányi still has an ease and familiarity with the orchestra that few can match. This stems not only from his extended tenure in Cleveland (1982 – 2002), but a long career working with first-class orchestras around the world. He has a fine sense of color, texture and balance, which he shifted for the Schumann symphonies, reversing the usual position of the lower strings – violas stage left, and cellos and bass stage right.

Conducting on Thursday without a score, von Dohnányi seemed effortless in his ability to drive the music with flowing rhythms and agile turns of tone and tempo. And he obviously knows the ensemble very well. From the very first bars of the opening Symphony No. 4, the trademark sound of the Cleveland Orchestra was in full flower: warm, lush, richly detailed and sweeping in romantic grandeur.

Opening with No. 4 and ending with No. 2 flopped the symphonies chronologically but made sense programmatically, as the latter is the stronger and more satisfying work. No. 4 is a revision of a piece that flopped when it premiered in 1841, got shelved, then was dusted off and reorchestrated for a more successful performance in 1851, conducted by the composer himself. The symphony was a staple in the Cleveland Orchestra’s repertoire under George Szell, who not surprisingly used his own version of the score. Christoph von Dohnányi has carried on that tradition, last leading the orchestra in a performance of the piece in 2007.

What stood out in Thursday’s performance was its vibrancy, a rhythmic flow and propulsive quality that gave the music a dynamic pulse. Never flashy, it nonetheless brimmed with color, though not much detail – von Dohnányi seemed more interested in grand gestures. These had a wonderful freshness and spontaneity, with a lot of snap in the sound. Otherwise the performance was a bit ragged around the edges, with an unusually anemic showing from the woodwinds. But it finally caught fire with a thrilling statement of the theme in the third movement, then picked up drama with bold statements by the brass and dashed to a crisp close.

Both conductor and players seemed to hit stride in the second half with a markedly better performance of No. 4. The sound was clear and sharp, sparkling in the brighter passages and electric in finishing out movements. The rhythmic flow was a marvel – by midway through the first movement, the orchestra was positively purring. That exuberant quality carried through a lively second movement which gave way to gentle, delicate touches in the Adagio. The finale was captivating, with rich woodwinds underpinning a lustrous, galloping romp.

It’s normal for Severance audiences to stand and applaud after every concert, though rare to see them snapping pictures with cell phones, as they did on Thursday. Beyond the lingering affection for von Dohnányi, that enthusiasm reflected the infectious energy of the performance, even more remarkable in being generated by an 84-year old maestro.

And von Dohnányi is a class act, taking his bows from the floor with the musicians. It took several curtain calls and the musicians staying in their seats for him to step back on the podium for a final burst of applause. Both onstage and in the audience, there was genuine joy at hearing that vibrant energy in the orchestra again.

Photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Hall Auditorium, Oberlin
March 14

Joshua Blue, center, as an unhappy King of the May.

When Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947, the director of the festival reportedly warned the audience, “This isn’t our kind of thing.” The undercurrent of homosexuality in a man being chosen as Queen of the May was too strong, especially with Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, singing the title role.

Fortunately that’s passé now, leaving a brilliant musical work ripe for straight (no pun intended) comic treatment – with satirical swipes directed at the supporting cast, not Albert. Director Jonathon Field ran with that premise in a whipcrack production last week, turning in a professional-caliber performance with Oberlin Conservatory students.

Field approached the opera in the spirit of screwball comedy, the rapid-fire, histrionic style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. Characters marched, preened, bantered and cajoled in clockwork precision, starting with the group of British villagers that convene at the home of Lady Billows to decide who will be Queen of the May. Stereotypically stiff and proper, they moved like interlocking parts of a well-oiled machine, establishing caricatures (priggish schoolmarm, huffy police superintendent) with a few deft lines and gestures before flitting into places around a dining table to make unctuous pitches for their candidates.

Marvelous Monroe.
That set up an amusingly pompous entrance by Lady Billows, played on Friday night by Amber Monroe, whose privileged mien and florid indignation delivered in Wagnerian-sized vocals provided amusing reaction shots throughout the entire evening. The snappy put-downs of her maid, sung by Micaëla Aldridge, to each of the proposed names set a brisk tempo and arch tone of comic anticipation.

The pace slowed with the title character’s appearance in the second half of the first act, and Joshua Blue’s one-dimensional portrayal of a depressed mamas boy didn’t help. Daveed Buzaglo’s overly cloying Sid was more distracting than amusing, but Hannah Hagerty as his girlfriend Nancy brought back some sparkle, particularly in their love duet. And when the committee flooded in for a rousing production number announcing Albert as King of the May, the cascade of reactions – Albert aghast, his mother thrilled, Lady Billows dangling the prize purse – set an enticing mixture of farce, satire and whimsy.

Britten’s witty score comes to the fore in the second act, and Field took full advantage of comic set pieces like Miss Wordsworth (Audrey Ballaro-Hagadorn) rehearsing her mischievous choral trio. Even more impressive was the way he had his singers play to the quirks in the music – flashes of color in the woodwinds, sharp cracks of percussion – that add dimension to the characters’ personalities. The score is also notable for its many references, to which Field added a few of his own onstage. Lady Billows had a Scarlett O’Hara moment on the staircase of her home, and it took an invocation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” to induce Albert to get up and speak at the banquet celebrating his crowning.

Albert’s disappearance in the third act gave Hagerty a chance to shine in hand-wringing arias, and the full ensemble an opportunity to indulge in some lusty, madcap recriminations after he reappeared. The singing was uniformly strong, without a weak voice in the cast. After Albert downed a spiked drink in the second act and his character opened up, Blue blossomed into a rich, full tenor who dominated the stage by the final curtain. Monroe never failed to get a reaction to her outsized singing and acting, and the committee members crafted amusing character studies.

Much of the credit for the production’s success has to be shared with conductor Christopher Larkin, whose credits include a stint as music director of the New York City Opera touring company. Even for a small orchestra (13 pieces), the sound was remarkably transparent, clear and disciplined without losing the spontaneity that gives Albert Herring its bright spirit and momentum. Violinist Yuri Popowycz deserves special mention for a virtuoso invocation of whistling. And the orchestra’s intermezzos merited an extra round of applause.

King of the May? By the final curtain Friday night, it seemed exactly like our kind of thing.

Photos by John Seyfried


Plymouth Church
March 18

Precision and passion in a two-night marathon.

There was a moment of absolute stillness and then an audible exhalation of breath after the Takács Quartet brought Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6 to a hushed close on Tuesday night. The broken spell reflected not only the hypnotic grip the ensemble had on the piece and their audience, but the conclusion of an intense encounter with the Hungarian composer – all six of his string quartets played over two evenings at Plymouth Church.

The Takács Quartet has a long and deep relationship with the pieces, which they recorded on a 1998 release that Gramophone named the Best Chamber Recording of the year. They presented them in an odd-even pairing – Nos. 1, 3 & 5 on the first night, and 2, 4 & 6 on the second. That grouping balanced the length of the concerts and, more importantly, gave listeners a chance to appreciate the entire arc of Bartók’s musical thinking and development on both nights.

What is most striking hearing the string quartets in that concentration is the revolutionary genius of the composer. The first quartet is a transitional work that employs familiar patterns and techniques even as it reflects new directions in 20th-century music. In the rest, Bartók completely deconstructs the form and rebuilds it according to his own ideas and purposes. Played with the clarity and intelligence that the Takács Quartet brings to the works, they unfold like a dazzling series of revelations, each a new adventure in structure, a fresh blend of flavors and influences, and an emergence of powerful new harmonies.

In the solemn tones of No. 1 on Monday night, the group established its sound, a distinctive admixture of precision and warmth with Old World style and depth. That fit the piece perfectly, as the opening elegy gave way to livelier rhythms and the first flashes of the folk idioms that became an increasing part of Bartók’s work. In No. 3, written nearly 20 years later, they appear as brief squirts of melody and curlicues of color amid slashing violin lines and fiery passages in which all four instruments are going in separate directions. The players seemed psychically linked in their seamless execution and tight, controlled sound.

A fierce start on No. 5 set the tone for a thrilling rendering of the piece, which dissects melodies as quickly as it creates them, and mixes squeals, chattering and other odd noises into a fast-paced blend of folk and classical rhythms. This calls for virtuoso playing skills, but the group was even more impressive in its ability to pull all the disparate elements together into an organic sound, as if one voice were speaking in many intonations and colors.

On Tuesday, a gripping opening movement in No. 2 set up the insistent ostinato in the second movement, which gathered an irresistible momentum but never lost the sound of four distinct instruments. Each was like a separate soul in anguish, driven to a dramatic frenzy that suddenly broke and gave way to the deep melancholy of the third and final movement, in which the waves of anxiety receded and the voices, softer now, became meditative and resigned.

For No. 4, the group opened up a bit, putting a sharper edge on the sound and an electric charge particularly in the opening and closing movements, which mirror one another. The all-pizzicato fourth was a tour de force – who knew plucking the strings could produce so many different sounds? It was also an opportunity to get a close-up look at the “Bartók pizzicato,” which calls for plucking the string so strongly that it snaps against the instrument. The music is too serious for the effect to be humorous, but there was panache in the group’s execution of the technique. And a note of playfulness in the freewheeling snatches of melody in the final movement.

Individual voices were strong in No. 6 – a smooth opening viola solo, the cello dominant in the second movement, then the spectral tones of the third coalescing into a full complement of harsh strokes played tight and fast. The quartet dug deep for the finale, drawing on a well of emotion with an exquisite craftsmanship that left everyone holding their breath.

Is it possible for an ensemble to get better over the course of two nights? Given the caliber of the Takács Quartet, it’s almost absurd to talk about one performance being better than another. Yet along with the music there was a clear sense of development in the playing, which seemed to grow both more studied and more spontaneous as the pieces became more complex. By the end, the ensemble was not so much performing the quartets as inhabiting them, bringing them to impassioned life with a riveting combination of freshness and authority.

For more on the Takács Quartet:

Monday, March 10, 2014


Severance Hall
March 7

A holdover from an era of understated elegance.

Rudolph Buchbinder was his usual brilliant self playing Rachmaninoff on Friday night. But the star of the show was the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant conductor, Brett Mitchell. Like a pinch-hitter in baseball, Mitchell has to be prepared to step up to the plate every week, though he rarely gets the call. When Franz Welser-Möst phoned in sick on Friday afternoon, it was Mitchell’s time to shine.

Which he did immediately with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This is a piece that can become heavy and schmaltzy, and almost always does. The audience fixates on the familiar melody in the 18th variation, and if it gushes, everybody goes home happy. Mitchell took the opposite tack, starting with a light, agile sound that complemented the dramatic piano lines, providing a buoyant backdrop that didn’t get in the way. He stayed just shy of sentimental in the melody, letting it swell but keeping it clean and crisp, never overwhelming the soloist.

Buchbinder is a pro’s pro, a holdover from an era of playing without histrionics. He came out on stage in an open-necked white shirt, de rigueur casual for a Fridays@7 concert, sat arm’s-length from the keyboard and went to work. No fancy flourishes, no body language or banging, just a breathtakingly proficient reading that was both smooth and smart. His piano lines flowed with an easy mastery, riding the music and keeping it in balance, giving the solos color and character, then blending into the orchestral passages to add depth and texture.

What may be most remarkable about Buchbinder is the way he manages to infuse a piece he has obviously played many times with spontaneity, crafting a fresh, sparkling sound – in this case, in tandem with the conductor. Some notes fall by the wayside, but Buchbinder is not interested in a note-perfect performance. He has an artist’s sense of the bigger picture, which he builds in grand strokes and small ones, finely detailed in some sections, broad and sweeping in others, pulling the audience along in a rush of pure musicality.

The abbreviated Friday program offered a brief nod to the Richard Strauss anniversary year, the composer’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. Mitchell offered a brisk, lively reading, not very deep or emotional, instead polished and bright. It started off a bit thin, but the sound filled out nicely in the later sections of the piece, with the conductor showing fine control of the orchestra. One might have wished for more color from the horns and woodwinds. That, however, is the sort of fine-tuning conductors do in rehearsal, not from the podium in performance.

And a quick follow-up from the other Strauss – Johann Jr. – was effervescent, brimming with gaiety and charm. The waltz From the Mountains sounded anything but clichéd, flush with warm tones, sharp percussion, burnished horns and a champagne brio. The brief pauses, a trademark of Strauss waltzes, were clear and precise, putting a fine edge on the whirling melodies. A closing Czárdás opened with a witty gasp from the violins, then set off on a free-spirited romp, galloping to a snappy finish.

That propelled the audience into the foyer, where the New York Gypsy All-Stars were already playing. It was a bit of a shock, with the last strains of 19th-century Vienna still hanging in the air when they were suddenly steamrolled by modern electric pop. But no one seemed to mind, as the foyer quickly filled and the crowd overflowed up the stairs and onto the mezzanine.

And why not? The band was good. Still, the energy started inside the hall, where a last-minute sub had just hit a home run.

For more on Rudolf Buchbinder:

Photo by Marco Borggreve