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My wife and I enjoy hearing visiting orchestras, more for the contrast between them than for the repertoire they play. Different orchestras have different sounds, different energies, different ways of stating the music. It’s fascinating and energizing to hear two fine orchestras in close conjunction. The 2019-2020 concert season is going to be a joy for us. Through a fortunate set of coincidences we will hear all five of the major US Orchestras (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia), our favorite foreign ensembles (Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the often-overlooked Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Phil), the Metropolitan Opera, the LA Phil and the Berlin Philharmonic, Budapest Festival Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in one season. We will hear the LA Phil and the BSO in the same hall on the same day, what a treat this will be! Twenty-four concerts in 260 days.
Such an annus mirabilis calls for commemoration, for a commitment to memory. One good way to remember something is to write about it. To make some memories, I will post impressions of each of these concerts here at Ricochet. I do this for my own benefit, and I encourage your comments.
The Cleveland Orchestra was the first major orchestra I heard, in September 1974; before that I had attended concerts by the Waterbury and Hartford Symphonies, but nothing grander. That concert was eye-opening to me, I had no idea that an orchestra could sound so good. While in college in Cleveland I heard them perhaps 15 times a year. It has been a treat to hear them since, mostly at venues in the Northeast (Carnegie, Mechanics Hall in Worchester, Symphony Hall in Boston, Woolsey Hall at Yale) and rarely, at Severance Hall in Cleveland and the Blossom Music Center.
Friday night, I heard the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I went alone, as my wife did not want to take a day off from work to hear the same Mahler Fifth Symphony we will hear in May. The Mahler Fifth was on the program at that revelatory first Cleveland Orchestra concert in 1974, following Barber’s School for Scandal overture and a suite from Handel’s Water Music. It blew me away in 1974, and I hoped it would blow me away in 2019. I have been privileged to hear it only twice since, by the Fabulous Philadelphians in 1986 and by the Boston Symphony in 2010.
My visit to Carnegie followed a day well spent, dropping in on an oboe sales specialist, visiting the Frick Collection and getting to enjoy that fine gallery for four hours, much of it alone as closing time loomed. I walked from the Frick at Fifth Ave and 70th Street to find my dinner near Carnegie Hall, on the way ducking into the atrium of the Trump Building. What a gorgeous atrium, with its warm Italian marble, waterfalls and Secret Service agents at the entrances.
At Carnegie a half hour before showtime, I was struck by the huge proscenium. The Carnegie Hall stage is BIG. I always enjoy hearing musicians warm up on stage, a practice that many European orchestras avoid, and I settled back to read the program while enjoying the sounds of their tootlings. I was pleased to see two musicians on the orchestra’s roster who carried over from my years in Cleveland, orchestral pianist Joela Jones and cellist Richard Weiss. There were too many empty seats in the hall, although tickets were “sold out” perhaps 5% failed to fill, we had three empty seats in my eight-seat box. The concertmaster, coming out to tune, was not the venerable William Preucil but rather Peter Otto, a tall and very handsome young musician whom I had not seen as concertmaster before; Preucil was felled in a MeToo scandal last year. Danny Majeske, concertmaster during my Cleveland years, was a gem of a musician.
The program opened with Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch, a showpiece for pianist Yefim Bronfman, who played it that night. The orchestra took the tuning note from the piano. Bronfman and conductor Franz Welser-Möst entered to great applause. Bronfman is well-loved in New York and for good reason, his playing is warm, passionate and of amazing virtuosity.
The Trauermarsch derives from the opening movement of the Mahler Fifth. I was struck, in the 29 minute work, by how incisive, hard and cold the orchestra sounded. There was none of the warmth that I remembered from the Maazel and Dohnanyi years, the playing was utterly perfect but without richness. The orchestral sound emphasized woodwinds and brasses over strings, there were passages in which cacophonies of gong and bass drum made the string players, who were obviously busy by the motions of their bodies and bows, inaudible. The Trauermarsch is too lugubrious for my taste. The Cleveland adopted a crystalline sound that suited the mood of the piece; even a lyrical major-key passage featuring solo flute, about two-thirds of the way through, was not warm. There was no love in the piece, which at times was overly precise, but the extraordinary quiet ending worked well.
Mr. Bronfman played with his usual spectacular technique. There was music on the piano’s music rack but I never saw him turn a page; one suspects it was a particular passage that he had not memorized. At piece’s end, he and the orchestra received good but not rapturous applause, perhaps gathering less enthusiasm going out than he had received coming in. There was no encore.
During the intermission I struck up conversations with a couple from Louisville who had lived for years in Shaker Heights and came all the way to New York to hear “their” orchestra, and a New Yorker in the next box who was clearly as much of an aficionado of orchestras as I am. I love the intelligence and experience of the New York concert audience.
The Mahler Fifth was a joy, even with the orchestra sounding as it did. Solo trumpet Michael Sachs opened with great confidence, riding (as did most of the brasses and some of the solo winds) on the upper edge of pitch without sounding false. The playing was crisp, quick and clean. Details in the complex score were always clear, perhaps even too clear at times; the English horn lines, for example, were always prominent and sometimes in your face, never retiring into the fabric of the piece. I had the same feeling about low clarinet passages, which are legion. The strings showed absolute precision of pitch and ensemble, again not being the dominant choir. Brass choir playing, especially in the finale, was of utmost clarity; brass playing throughout was very impressive. This is a woodwind and brass focused orchestra, in contrast to, say, the VPO. We never heard a really lush string sound, not even in the famous Adagietto.
Overall the Cleveland Orchestra has a sharper, edgier sound than it did twenty or forty years ago. Departed principal wind players such as John Mack, Frank Cohen, Maurice Sharp and Myron Bloom, all of whom were famous for broad, wide sounds, have not been replaced by equally broad-sounding new musicians. Thus the orchestra is less cushioned and warm-sounding but still very effective. This is one of the ways a music director shapes the sound of his ensemble.
The performance was fabulous. One thing that pleased me was how Welser-Möst brought out the many ethnic gestures in the music, the little Klezmer moments; these are more obvious in the First Symphony, but they pervade Mahler. In a kind gesture I have not seen before, principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlage was brought to the front, like a concerto soloist, to play the obbligato part in the Scherzo. His playing was, of course, amazing; during the solo horn break in the middle of the movement the sound of his one horn made more impression than that of the entire orchestra. Tempos in the second and final movements were rather fast (I wrote “dynamite” in my notes). The ending of the piece, in which themes come and go with frantic abandon, brought the audience to their feet with enthusiastic applause before the last note had stopped reverberating. This capped a very impressive performance by one of the world’s finest orchestras. Welser-Most has changed their sound, but he has not diminished the group at all.
During the sectional bows that one inevitably sees on the second or third recall of the maestro there was a moment that showed how tight this orchestra is; the first trombone player pointed at the first trumpeter, deflecting credit to a colleague during his own moment of glory. The conductor was recalled five times and really should have programmed an encore, but none came.
After the show I took the N train to my son’s home in Astoria. We went out to the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, where we ate knockwurst and drank Pilsner Urquiel. As we chatted we watched 15 or 20 couples dancing silently, all wearing matched head sets that carried their choices of music. The ear covers glowed blue, red or green depending on the music. Somehow this odd spectacle of young people dancing silently at a Bohemian beer garden seemed an apt comment on a spectacular performance of music by the greatest of Czech composers (Mahler grew up in Bohemia, remember) but I am not wise enough to take the observation any farther.
What’s next? In two weeks, The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center. Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and, by a stroke of great luck, the Mahler Fifth. I’ll tell you all about it.