Monday, March 31, 2014


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

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