Post of the Week Created with Sketch. Memories of the Cleveland Orchestra, 10/4/19

 

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.

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There are 13 comments.

  1. Mark Camp Member

    Looking forward to it, Doc! I hope to learn something, even if it’s only that something I’ve always wanted to learn–the appreciation of the differences between great orchestras–is not within the reach of my intelligence.*

    Not that my insensitivity in this domain of the finer things positively troubles me: one doesn’t miss a kind of experience one has never had, and the dimensions of music which do reach my soul are plenty satisfying.

    Rather, I am curious. I’m curious about the facts. How inert am I, in fact? Perhaps not as much so as I perceive? given that I hear great orchestral performances almost exclusively in the counterfeit: listening to electronic devices that create a cheap illusion of being in the hall.

    Perhaps it is like appreciating this or that fine Scotch or fine wine. My memory, rather than my sensibility, is too poor to allow me to compare and appreciate. Thus, I don’t know why the Cincinnati is so much below the Chicago, but I would if I heard them in the same hall on the same day.

    See why I’m interested?

    *[I notice that the rest of this Comment seems to be all about me. It’s not. It’s a question about the experiences and observations of others, asked in the format of prattling out what I want to know from others by telling what I see in one specimen. (Me, the only one I’ve observed in its natural habitat.]

    NB: I don’t mean that my differential artistic deafness is complete. Play me a scratchy Eugene Ormandy LP, yes, I will know that it’s Philly, and yes I will be able to tell you if it seems too lush, or just “gorgeous”.

     

     

    • #1
    • October 6, 2019, at 8:27 AM PDT
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  2. Franz Drumlin Member

    I had the huge good fortune of hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Ninth at Carnegie Hall last March. You’re right: the place is big. Same shape (and beige-y decor) as Orchestra Hall in my home town of Chicago but about thirty or forty feet longer which probably accounts for it’s superior resonance. The Vienna Phil is still more of a Bruckner and Brahms orchestra but with the inevitable increase in younger players it has become a first-rate Mahler band. The conductor that night was Michael Tilson Thomas and he decided to just conduct music that night rather than hector the audience with a preliminary lefty harangue as he is known to do. The orchestra played magnificently for him that night. The final chord that ends the third movement landed with such a precise ‘whump!’ that listeners were left limp in their chairs. And then came that transcendental fourth movement with the Viennese strings pouring honey out into the auditorium.

    A couple of years earlier I heard the Cleveland Orchestra play the Sibelius Second in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The audience had to wait to be let into the hall because Welser-Most wanted extra rehearsal time to let his musicians adjust to the problematic acoustics of the space. A city ordinance in Chicago requires local music lovers to regard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the greatest orchestra in the world but as far as I’m concerned the Clevelanders blew the local band right into Lake Michigan. You mentioned the rather cold sound of the Cleveland Orchestra which only reveals that even after ten years of Riccardo Muti the Chicago Sym. string section still needs work. The hushed, stuttering chords that opened the Sibelius were almost visibly plush. The woodwinds burbled sweetly and it was a relief to hear a brass section that knows how to sing as a choir rather than trying to abrasively outdo each other in volume.

    Please, full reports on your future concert going!

    • #2
    • October 6, 2019, at 8:59 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Scott Wilmot Member

    This is a great post. I grew up in NE Ohio and have fond memories of going to Severance Hall and Blossom Music Center. I wish I knew more about music so that I might enjoy your post even more.

    • #3
    • October 6, 2019, at 12:31 PM PDT
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  4. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    Scott, thank you. My college hours at Severance were all happy and are also fondly remembered. I only went to Blossom once during college, at Freshman orientation, but have since returned in 2004 to hear my teacher’s last concerts and in 2011 to see the Rite of Spring danced. To learn more about music, listen and read! There are many guides for new listeners and the repertoire is incredibly enriching.

    Franz, thanks for your comments about the Cleveland vs. Chicago orchestras, this rivalry is decades old. I have never been to Orchestra Hall in Chicago, have heard the CSO only at Carnegie, a hall which makes any orchestra sound better. Funny, last night I put on the Szell recording of the Sibelius Second just to remind myself of how lush Cleveland used to sound. Fear not, full reports will follow every couple of weeks. I wanna remember these shows.

    Mark, I think you nailed it with your comment about Scotch and fine wine. I can’t tell fine wine from ripple, although I know what I like. But a lifetime of listening and oboe study and ensemble playing hone one’s ear. When I was a teen (1972ish) I amazed my Mom and Grandmother one night by identifying three orchestras on the radio by their sounds–I got the New York Phil and Philly O exactly right, and identified the London SO as being a European orchestra. Go To Live Concerts to train your ear. There is no substitute for hearing live music. The local symphony heard live will give you a more memorable performance than the Cleveland on CD.

    Cheers and thanks for your comments.

    • #4
    • October 6, 2019, at 1:54 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. E. Kent Golding Member

    Detroit Symphony Orchestra is worth a listen.

    • #5
    • October 6, 2019, at 1:58 PM PDT
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  6. Franz Drumlin Member

    E. Kent Golding (View Comment):

    Detroit Symphony Orchestra is worth a listen.

    My favorite recording of the Roy Harris Third is by the Detroit SO with Neeme Jarvi conducting. Great orchestra, as is Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle . . . Any of these ensembles could be, with the right piece and the right conductor, the Greatest Orchestra in the World, at least on that particular night. Solti, in his memoirs, says the notion of America having just five ‘great’ orchestras needs to be retired. Each year a multitude of talented, enthusiastic and well-trained musicians graduate from the world’s music schools. They all can’t get jobs with Berlin or Amsterdam, so – where do they go? To Atlanta, or Houston, or San Francisco. We live in a golden age of orchestral music.

    • #6
    • October 6, 2019, at 3:43 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Doc, are you a Case Western alum? Severance is fantastic. I was honored to be on the PBS crew that televised the concert that reopened the hall after renovation. (Bill Cosel, the longtime director of the Boston Pops called the show. What a delight.)

    At the depths of the city’s financial crisis the standard joke was, “What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has a better orchestra.”

    Szell, Maazel, von Dohnányi took that orchestra to incredible heights and the city is damn proud of it.

    • #7
    • October 6, 2019, at 3:50 PM PDT
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  8. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Doc, are you a Case Western alum?

    Class of 1978, and proud to be. What a great school. I wanted a college that had both a medical school and a major symphony orchestra on or near campus, preferably too far from central Connecticut for my folks to drop in unannounced. College applications were like $10 in those days, so I aimed high. Boston U and U Penn accepted me but offered no aid. U Chicago, Harvard, Hopkins and Yale rejected me. CWRU offered me an almost full scholarship. The choice was so easy, I didn’t even do a campus visit. My first sight of the place was at freshman orientation. I never regretted my choice for an hour. And I ended up training at Penn and turning down a job at Yale, so I got my Ivies eventually.

    Severance is fantastic. I was honored to be on the PBS crew that televised the concert that reopened the hall after renovation. (Bill Cosel, the longtime director of the Boston Pops called the show. What a delight.)

    I have seen one concert in the renovated hall, legendary oboist John Mack’s farewell in 2001. The event was very meaningful to me and I don’t remember much about the hall, although I remember his playing (the Handel G minor oboe concerto) very well.

    At the depths of the city’s financial crisis the standard joke was, “What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has a better orchestra.”

    How very many times I heard that joke from my friends and relatives while in college!

    Szell, Maazel, von Dohnányi took that orchestra to incredible heights and the city is damn proud of it.

    They really did, and the city should be. Szell died in 1970, so when I arrived in 1974 his legacy was HUGE. Maazel took a lot of sh*t in the populace for not being Szell but the players, I am told, liked him (not loved him) and respected his enormous musicality and memory. I don’t think I have ever heard a better orchestra than Cleveland in the 1990s, under Dohnanyi. A Beethoven 3 at the Bushnell in Hartford remains firm in my memory.

    Thanks for your comment.

     

    • #8
    • October 6, 2019, at 4:23 PM PDT
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  9. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    Franz Drumlin (View Comment)

    Solti, in his memoirs, says the notion of America having just five ‘great’ orchestras needs to be retired. Each year a multitude of talented, enthusiastic and well-trained musicians graduate from the world’s music schools. They all can’t get jobs with Berlin or Amsterdam, so – where do they go? To Atlanta, or Houston, or San Francisco. We live in a golden age or orchestral music.

    This I think is true to a point. While we have had the American “Big Five” since George Szell elevated Cleveland to star status in the 1950s, I have heard the Atlanta SO, San Francisco SO and LA Phil play fabulous concerts, and I think that the Bavarian Radio Symphony is as fine as any big name group. The Toledo SO, which is a full time, this-is-your-day-job orchestra, can play a concert in the upper echelons on a good night. But the “lesser” groups are not as fine as often. The legacy orchestras have a tradition and sense of history that attracts the very finest players and keeps them working very, very hard to maintain their standards. This gives audible results.

    These are generalities. I have heard the Vienna Phil give two technically imperfect and boring, uninspired shows at Carnegie.

    https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/03/a-shocking-flopperoo/

    Yes, the guy with the stick does matter. The same guy, Gustavo Male Dud, led the LA Phil in an insipid Shostakovitch Fifth that same spring at Symphony Hall in Boston. Perhaps he was having a bad year at home.

    To my surprise and delight, I heard the same conductor lead an outstanding Rite of Spring with the BSO last year, so I look forward to the same piece under his stick with the LA Phil next month. That will be concert # 7 of our Orchestral Odyssey.

    • #9
    • October 6, 2019, at 4:32 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Mark Camp Member

    Could one of the more cultivated listeners characterize for me, for us, the common distinguishing qualities in comparing a great orchestra and second tier one?

    (That question contains an implicit assumption that there is a pattern to the superiority, which may not be true.)

    For example, you may have four identifiable categories of quality, plus perhaps the extra one: some ineffable I-don’t-know-what that is reproducible, concert after concert and also between different critics describing the same orchestra, but not technically describable.

    A made-up example of what I am looking for:

    “All of the top tier are almost always free of technical errors:

    • intonation errors
    • balance errors (horns louder than other sections)
    • unsynchronized entries, interior beats, and cutoffs
    • sound production errors (squeaky attacks on clarinet or bwaht sounds on tuba)

    whereas all of the second tier reliably produce a couple of these noticeable errors each performance.”

    or

    “All of the top tier usually introduce an interesting, subtle but noticeable new phrasing–degree of legato, ritardando, etc., in well-known passages, whereas the second tier copy conventional phrasing.”

    Like that.

     

     

    • #10
    • October 6, 2019, at 5:14 PM PDT
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  11. James Lileks Contributor

    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.

    They’re always there, and my favorite interpreters klez them up a bit more than others. When you think about it context, making Frere Jacque a round (after a ronde!) and turning the Jewishness up to 11 was a rather audacious thing to do; no wonder the old beards were shocked. 

    It’s like that moment at the end of the second movement of the 7th, Nachtmusik – you know who you’re dealing with when they really stick that last note, or soft-pedal it. 

    Franz mentioned the 9th – a tormented, exalted, exhalation and farewell, and for God’s sake he was only 49 when he started it. We hear it as the great long goodbye because he kicked two years later, but what if he hadn’t? There’s that horrible discord in the first movement of the 10th, two notes short of a 12-tone row, that makes you wonder how he would have processed the death of the old orders in the trenches of WW1.

    We like to think we will die to Bruckner, all Alpine vistas and sunset glory, but know we will die to Mahler, heartsick and exultant – birdsong and cowbells, heraldic offstage trumpets, the headstrong crescendo, the hammerschlag.

    • #11
    • October 6, 2019, at 10:24 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert

    James, despite 466 episodes of the Ricochet Podcast I had no idea you are a Mahlerian. You need to discuss this some time on the show. Get Jay Nordlinger on with you and go to town!

    Are you able to get to the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam in May, or to hear Vienna Phil under Barenboim do #s 5,7,9 at Carnegie in June? Do it if you can!

    re: your last sentence, when my first wife died suddenly I found myself listening to Mahler 6, 7, 9 and 10 fairly often. A wise musician advised me to ditch Mahler for Mozart. Doing so really helped my widower’s funk.

    • #12
    • October 7, 2019, at 10:20 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. James Lileks Contributor

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    re: your last sentence, when my first wife died suddenly I found myself listening to Mahler 6, 7, 9 and 10 fairly often. A wise musician advised me to ditch Mahler for Mozart. Doing so really helped my widower’s funk.

    Perhaps the best time to listen to Mahler is when you’re in the opposite mood, as a reminder of what’s to come for good or ill. 

    • #13
    • October 7, 2019, at 11:25 AM PDT
    • 1 like