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