Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cleveland Orchestra hits the mark with first 'Summers@Severance" program

August 03, 2014

Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls is a fine and pleasant place to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in the summer months, with its green expanses, lush deciduous shadings and cool breezes as night falls. Nature, even in its more obstreperous mode (witness last week's concert-stopping thunderclap), complements great music in a great way.

There is, of course, the matter of the roughly 70-mile round-trip drive, if you're coming from the Cleveland area: a bit of a haul on the way down, and a very long return drive late at night. Blossom is a blessing for those who live in Summit County and beyond, but it also makes sense for the Orchestra to maintain a presence in University Circle, which is seeing a renaissance of cultural and entertainment activity such as it hasn't for many years.

That, at least, must have been the thinking when the Musical Arts Association devised its new August concert series, "Summers at Severance," a trio of programs that emphasize a more streamlined concert experience (shorter program with no intermission) and a relaxed social event afterward. To judge from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, the powers that be at the hall hit the mark with their new venture.

Friday night's program was a shorter version of the one that the Orchestra would present the following evening at Blossom. Johannes Debus led Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and Piano Concerto in G Major, with the awfully young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, and Rachmaninoff's magnificent fever-dream, the Symphonic Dances, leaving off a suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera "Les Indes Galantes," which would round out Saturday night's full-length Blossom program.

Debus conducts with precision and a finely tuned ear, which was perfect for Ravel's concerto. Its opening Allegro weaves together disparate elements, including American jazz, which Ravel treats in a highly idiosyncratic, polytonal way, and lively percussion that, thanks to the composer's witty sensibility, sounds like a wind-up toy mechanism, all in a sort of hallucinatory aspic that lifts the work above its deceptively simple sound-world.

Pianist Grosvenor rode this variable surge with confidence, alternately precise and steely, and languid and improvisatory. In the concerto's middle movement, a long cantilena of heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, he was appropriately restrained and pensive; while to the concluding Presto, he brought a toccata-like attack that was exciting. While it may not have been the most transcendental performance, it certainly conveyed Ravel's intent well.

The truncation of the program from the Saturday night line-up moved Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" into the evening's opening slot, where it proved a somewhat awkward curtain raiser. Debus set a steady pace that allowed for rhythmic flexibility, but the piece failed to fully gel despite the best efforts of the players, who delineated Ravel's many felicities of orchestration with their usual artistry.

By the time the ensemble came to Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, they were fully "played in," and gave a performance that was memorable. Debus's precision with the stick proved an asset here, as he led the players through Rachmaninoff's relentless cross-rhythms and superb orchestration, maintaining throughout that combination of fire and nostalgia that makes this work the apotheosis of the composer's vision.

Special credit goes to the percussion section, which was kept especially busy in the third dance, with wild janissary percussion – tambourines, xylophones, bells, timpani, side and bass drums and gong – without which Rachmaninoff's "ride to hell" wouldn't be half as terrifying. The players drove it home like a phalanx of high-octane rock drummers.

The concert was over by 8:30, but the proceedings spilled out onto the outdoor terrace in front of the hall, where drink and hors d'ouevres service was available, and DJ MisterBradleyP spun thumping dance music at high volume (did we recognize a bit from the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's "The Great Gatsby?").

A fine surprise occurred, however, when dancers from Verb Ballets presented an abridged version of Tommie-Waheed Evans' electrifying "Dark Matter," which they had just performed the week before at Cain Park. One wonders what the Hall will come up with for the all-Beethoven concert's after-party on August 15.

Verb Ballets demonstrates its broad range in Saturday show at Cain Park

July 28, 2014

Verb Ballets demonstrated an admirable range of styles Saturday night in Cain Park's Evans Amphitheater, as they opened their 2014-15 season with four dances including the company premiere of choreographer Anthony Krutzkamp's "Similar" (2013).

The D-Minor Keyboard Concerto of Bach provided the backdrop for a revisiting of William Anthony's dance "Contra Con," which Verb performed in February in two choreographically identical versions, one with the intellectual rigor of Bach's masterpiece, the other with African drumming as its soundtrack.

Saturday night's performance limited itself to the Bach version, a more comfortable setting for the dance's vocabulary of classical ballet tropes played out in an abstract arc. The nine dancers (the men dressed in red T-shirts and shorts, the women in red long-sleeve tops and lightweight skirts) combined variously in patterned unison and counterpoint, reminiscent of the sort of thing Balanchine would accomplish with composers as disparate as Tchaikovsky and Hindemith.

The effect was attractive enough, though in the dance's lively outer sections, it seemed to lack a certain depth that was hinted at in the slower middle section, wherein the dancers continued their patterned steps with languorous gestures and frozen-in-time combinations, while at the back of the stage and only dimly lit, the single figure of a woman, draped in a flowing burgundy robe, strode with ritualistic slowness from left to right, oblivious to the dancers upstage.

Summer apprentice Ca'la Hensderson was striking in this brief appearance; she returned later in the program as part of the corps for Tommie-Waheed Evans' "Dark Matter."
Choreographer Pamela Pribisco envisioned an operetta-like pas de deux for "Tarantella" (2005). Janet Bolick's costumes, complete with beribboned tambourines, carried the association further, with their evocation of gypsy dancers from the era of Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán.

Gottschalk's "Grand Tarantella" for piano and orchestra (in Hershy Kay's well-known arrangement) drove the dance relentlessly forward through its stages, with a series of ever-increasingly elaborate solo passes framed by the opening and closing duets.

Megan Buckley replaced the indisposed Stephanie Krise as Michael Hinton's partner, and turned in a winning performance that included some effortless high kicks, striking the tambourine with her toe. The result was a nostalgic turn that one audience member was overheard to describe as "adorable."

At age 32, Anthony Krutzkamp has retired from dancing and is now choreographer and Co-Artistic Director of the Kansas City Dance Festival. In a video interview, he described his days as a dancer, when he frequently found himself cast as "the partner," in which he "spent a lot of my time deadlifting and pressing ladies and running across stage." With his recent work "Similar," for eight partnered dancers, he sought to add more depth to the role.

Krutzkamp described his choreography as revolving "around circles," though this hardly begins to describe the Apollonian beauty of his work, in which highly refined steps and streamlined gestures based in classical ballet movements find a new application and great emotional depth. The tender and languid pas de deux, danced by Lieneke Matte and Stephaen Hood, just about stopped the show.

Verb reprised their electrifying dance "Dark Matter" from last year. Commissioned by Verb from Philadelphia choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans, with a pounding score of industrial electronica by Philly composer Greg Smith, the work is a nonstop tour-de-force for nine dancers, who move with great athleticism and complexity in what could be described as a radical urban style, but always at the mercy of the music and Trad A. Burns' pulsating lighting effects.

The dance followed an impressive course through a landscape of gestures and steps that seemed to be on the verge of erupting in violence, with dancers finding themselves joined in unison patterns, only to break apart and scatter around the stage. The score, which sounded as if Vladimir Ussachevsky had written music for a post-apocalyptic dance club, combined tonally indeterminate rhythmic impulses with fragments of speech and, curiously, passages of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

The work was quite effective, but a little exhausting. Dark matters, indeed, were hinted at in the dance's subliminal narrative, but its monochromatic tone was unrelieved, something that might be modified to better effect by notching down the in-your-face lighting and the high volume of the music.

Cleveland Orchestra cellist Mark Kosower, conductor Herbert Blomstedt combine forces in triumphant Dvorak concerto

April 18, 2014
By Mark Satola

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland Orchestra principal cello Mark Kosower was called back to the stage four times to acknowledge a huge ovation from the near-capacity audience in Severance Hall Thursday night, following his triumphant performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, with the Cleveland Orchestra under guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

The loud plaudits were well-earned. Soloist and orchestra were intense and luminous throughout the long score, which is perhaps Dvorak’s most personal statement.

It was written when the composer was in the United States and received word that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, with whom he’d been in love before eventually marrying her sister, was seriously ill. His inclusion in the second movement of the melody from his song “Leave Me Alone,” a favorite of Josefina’s, is his tribute to her.

Although there are plenty of passages for orchestra alone, the soloist is never out of the spotlight, and Kosower maintained an artistic concentration that was impressive. His tone was steely but warm, and, thanks to Dvorak's careful writing (and Blomstedt’s sure directorial hand), Kosower was never subsumed by the large orchestra that the composer calls for.

Dvorak infused his concerto with countless felicities, all sensitively limned by the players. While there are no standard cadenzas, the Adagio features a passage of exquisite delicacy, in which the cellist muses alone, joined first by solo flute and then other woodwinds.

Here, in this tenderest of moments, even more than in the dramatic and heroic passages of the outer movements, Kosower achieved his finest expression of the evening, beautifully capturing the composer’s note of wistfulness and regret.

Blomstedt, of course, is a familiar and welcome figure on Severance Hall’s podium. Thursday night his mastery was in evidence from the concerto’s opening bar. Orchestral balances were perfect throughout, and Dvorak’s complex rhetorical weave was always clearly delineated.

Blomstedt’s collaboration with Kosower also was notable for its communicativeness – at one point in the finale, conductor and soloist exchanged a small smile after Kosower gave a particularly fine rendering of a complex passage.

The Dvorak was clearly a tough act to follow, but Blomstedt and the orchestra pulled it off with an intense reading of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony. Premiered just nine days before the composer’s unexpected death, the Symphony No. 6 has been perceived as Tchaikovsky’s cri de coeur before his purported suicide, a myth that is now generally disregarded.

Nevertheless, the score is highly dramatic and can hyperventilate if allowed, especially in the discursive opening movement, where its emotional outbursts seem a little unearned. What’s needed is firm but flexible control, keeping in check the music’s inclination toward excess while allowing its undeniable impact to have its effect.

This Blomstedt provided in spades, especially in the inner movements, a waltz in 5/4 time and a mercurial scherzo that quickly becomes a triumphant march.

Blomstedt’s tempo in the scherzo was brisk, but the orchestra met the challenge with such elan that a smattering of applause rippled through the hall, quashed quickly by Blomstedt’s outstretched hand.

The anguished finale was given as fine a reading as one could want, and the audience, as they did with earlier with Mark Kosower, brought Blomstedt back to the stage many times.

Cleveland Orchestra players, music combine on near-perfect Rocky River Chamber Music Society concert

May 13, 2014

Loud thunder, frequent flashes of lightning, high winds, torrential rain and at one point a tornado warning (announced from the stage at intermission) — none of this overwhelmed what was a near-perfect concert Monday by a large woodwind ensemble from the ranks of the Cleveland Orchestra, augmented by some talented friends.

The last concert of the Rocky River Chamber Music's 2013-14 season, the program also featured the premiere of a new work by Cleveland Orchestra assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun.

In terms of air time, Mozart dominated the evening, which began with an uncredited transcription of the overture to "The Abduction from the Seraglio" for wind octet, with oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons in pairs.

Suites from Mozart's operas were being made while Mozart was still alive, especially in Bohemia, by such competent journeymen as Wenzel Sedlak. The transcription played Monday night was well done but peculiarly brief, ending after what seemed like a minute and a half (the overture as usually heard lasts about five minutes), which left the audience unsure whether to applaud; it fell to clarinetist Daniel McKelway to announce that that was, indeed, all, folks.

Jeffrey Rathbun is a prolific composer of unusually attractive music, in which comprehensible forms convey multidimensional emotional narratives that fully access modern harmonic and contrapuntal methods — which is a lofty way of saying that however polytonal or dissonant his music gets, it never fails to make an immediate connection with the listener.

Rathbun's "Rocky River Music" for wind octet was commissioned by the Rocky River Chamber Music Society and dedicated to the memory of Marianne Mastics, well-known local pianist and a driving force behind the society. Its language is harmonically pungent and complex, and its counterpoint ingenious, especially in the opening movement, "Danger," where the musical thought is assembled in modular "cells," with pairs of instruments creating characteristic shapes that interlock into a tense narrative exemplary of its title.

The second movement, "Humanity," finds Rathbun in a more expansive mood, warm but still harmonically complex; while in the high-spirited finale, "Fearless," the contrapuntal interlock of the opening movement is combined with a bright major-key clarity and a good measure of swagger.

In centuries past, new works were often encored; a repeat performance of "Rocky River Music" would certainly have been welcome.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Mozart's Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, "Gran Partita,"  for 13 players (12 winds, plus double bass). While Mozart plumbs no great philosophical depths in this work, he has here given us his most entertaining serenade, full of rich sonorities and inventive and playful scoring.

Mozart upped the ante from the usual wind octet by adding two more horns, for a total of four, and augmented the clarinet timbre by bringing in two basset horns, the deeper-voiced siblings of the clarinet. The four single-reed instruments were particularly sweet in the first trio of the second movement, Menuetto.

The ensemble's tempos were relatively fast, so that even the Adagio proceeded at a good clip. Oboist Rathbun and clarinetist McKelway played with shapeliness and fine balance in this movement, which plays out as a sort of double concertante for oboe and clarinet. In the fast section of the otherwise dreamy Romance, bassoonist Barrick Stees was nimble and articulate.

Given the quick tempos in play throughout the work, one wondered how the quicksilver rondo finale would be rendered. The musicians in fact took it at such a fast pace that some of Mozart's trickier passages were almost blurred, but not quite, and the total effect was one that could only result in the enthusiastic ovation that swept the hall almost immediately.

Violin master Gil Shaham conjures sublime Bach from his Stradivarius

February 11, 2014
By Mark Satola

Stradivarius violins are lately on the minds of many Americans, thanks to the media’s coverage of the theft and subsequent recovery of a Strad owned by the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony.

One suspects, however, that much of the attention paid derives more from the monetary value attached to the instrument — an estimated $5 million — than from any sudden uptick in appreciation of the sort of music played upon a Stradivarius.

The real value of the instrument lies in the sublime sounds a master virtuoso can draw from it; and if that’s a true measure, then the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Strad Gil Shaham played Thursday night at the Cleveland Museum of Art was, for that space of time, the most valuable instrument in the world.

Shaham appeared in the museum’s seasonlong “Masters of the Violin” series, performing music for unaccompanied violin by Johann Sebastian Bach: the Second and Third Sonatas, and the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, with its mighty concluding “Chaconne.”

The violinist, who celebrates his 42nd birthday this month, made a brisk, no-nonsense entry and launched directly into the Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, demonstrating at once the miraculous technique that marks him as the true heir to Jascha Heifetz and Leopold Auer – a fluid but precise left hand, a bow arm that’s astonishing in its range of attack and a sweetness of tone that shines through the spectrum of color that he created with each note.

Shaham demonstrated his musical acuity in the sonata’s Fuga, in which Bach creates a complex fugue full of implied counterpoint and voice-leading, supported by difficult double and triple stops. It’s music that could get quite thick and muddled in lesser hands, but Shaham kept Bach’s lines well-defined, while keeping the arc of the musical narrative dramatic and clear.

In the Second Sonata’s Andante, Shaham’s incomparable bow arm came into play as he conveyed both the movement’s singing melody and its “walking” accompaniment with admirable deftness.

Bach wrote three each of sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Of the partitas, the best-known is the Second, for its concluding “Chaconne,” a set of variations on a ground that is a greater work of art than its formal title might imply.

Shaham gave a reading that was briskly paced and dramatic, but which allowed the music to unfold on its own. The sublime moderation from D minor to D major midway through was played with such hushed tenderness that it seemed to hover over the hall; and the return to the minor key was conveyed with an almost-tragic sensibility.

The Chaconne might be a tough act to follow, but the Third Solo Violin Sonata was more than a match for it. Bach’s musical thought in the sonatas is more substantial than in the partitas (which are basically suites of dances, however accomplished), and the Sonata No. 3 in C Major is the meatiest of the set.

Shaham took full advantage of his instrument’s powerful voice, with its brilliant upper range, complex midrange and full, booming lower range, filling Gartner Auditorium with a sound that was almost orchestral. In the concluding Allegro assai, he gave his virtuosity free rein and drove home a performance that was simply electrifying.

The sold-out audience called Shaham back to the stage twice, but there was no encore; it hardly seemed necessary after such a satisfying performance.

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero ranges from late Brahms to 'Let It Snow' in Mixon Hall Masters Series concert

January 24, 2014
By Mark Satola
Two very distinct sides of a remarkable artist were presented for consideration Thursday night at the Cleveland Institute of Music, when Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero played music of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, followed by a series of eye-opening improvisations on themes suggested by members of the audience.

Montero began her recital, part of the Mixon Hall Masters Series, with the three Intermezzi, Op. 117, by Brahms. Brahms’ late piano pieces are generally considered to be the introspective thoughts of a composer in his old age (though in truth, Brahms was only 59 when he committed those thoughts to paper), and there is something trance-like and visionary about the first of them, the Andante moderato in E-flat, a wistful cradle song suffused with nostalgia and longing.

What is more noteworthy about these pieces is that they represent an essentialization of Brahms’ technique and expression, and Montero’s approach suited the music well.

Her performance of the three pieces, which increase in contrapuntal and emotional complexity, was full of exquisite balances, finely calculated rubato and subtle dynamics, yet the listener was never aware of anything but Brahms’ innermost thoughts.

Montero’s natural and undemonstrative style at the keyboard, and her sensitivity to the composer’s intentions, resulted in a highly charged performance of music that, in lesser hands, can be somnolent.

Her performance of Schumann’s not-often-heard Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, was similarly successful. Schumann’s three-movement essay is one of a breed of works current at the time that sought to escape the bonds of strict sonata form in favor of a more freely composed fantasia (Liszt’s Piano Sonata and Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy” come to mind).

Montero approached Schumann’s score with steely precision and, where called for, a melting lyricism. Schumann’s masterstroke in this piece is not so much the heroic march that forms the second movement, but the glowing, slow finale that follows it.

Montero’s marvelous pedal effect as she transitioned into the last part, and her sustained tone and phrasing to the end, made a strong case for Schumann’s work to be heard more often.

Montero is already hailed for her preternatural abilities as an improviser, and she did not disappoint Thursday night. An exceptional improviser can create marvelous music even on the most unlikely of themes, and Montero was in exceptional form with audience-suggested tunes that ranged from seemingly uninspiring to startlingly fertile.

Sometimes a pop tune is an improviser’s best bet, and Montero’s first ad libitumexcursion was based on the song “Let It Snow” (inspired no doubt by the cinematic tableau of gentle snow falling behind Mixon Hall's glass stage wall).

Montero mused a bit on the tune, then launched into a Bachian fantasia, full of brilliant counterpoint and dazzling harmonies that had the audience laughing with delight.

Likewise, a suggestion from the large contingent of Venezuelans in the audience for a popular song from their homeland resulted in a polytonal toccata, reminiscent of Bartok or Prokofiev.

Though one might think that Schumann’s “Träumerei” would not yield much as a theme for improvising, Montero proved her creative mettle by transforming it into a Rachmaninoffian etude-tableau that was rich and internally complex. The opening melody of Wagner’s opera “Parsifal,” however, proved to be somewhat unmalleable, though Montero deserves great credit for what gold she was able to spin from it.

The most interesting moment came when someone suggested a mood rather than a musical phrase. Montero composed on the spot a Debussian excursion describing a young girl from a warmer climate encountering a snowy landscape for the first time.

She concluded her recital with a vigorous Beethovenian workout on, of all things, Debussy's “Clair de lune,” which led to an extended coda treating the theme as a lively and harmonically complex ragtime dance. One hopes that some of these will stick in Montero's memory, to be enshrined as fully formed compositions.

Oberlin Opera Theater offers a visually imaginative and musically rich 'Hansel und Gretel'

November 13, 2013
By Mark Satola

Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” allows for a number of directorial choices. There are productions in which the role of the Witch is sung, buffo, by a tenor in drag, and sometimes the roles of Witch and Mother are taken by the same singer.

Last week’s production by the Oberlin Opera Theater (which used the German title rather than the English “Hansel and Gretel”) opted for a more traditional presentation that had many visual felicities as well as some outstanding performances by accomplished students from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra, ably conducted by Raphael Jimenez.

The spirit of Wagner hovers not far above Humperdinck’s fairytale. Like the music dramas fashioned by the master of Bayreuth, “Hansel und Gretel” is no Singspiel, with spoken interludes between musical numbers. Rather, it’s a through-composed cataract of melody, infused with the shapes of folk song and dance, with dramatic action brought to the same level of importance as the music.

Set designer Christopher McCollum’s painterly settings evoke a variety of visual sources. The cottage where Hansel and Gretel help make brooms for the family’s meager livelihood is rustic and rough, full of bare wood, open rafters, windows without glass and sticks of furniture, not far from Romantic engravings of Black Forest life.

The forest setting of Act 2 evokes, in its blue-and-tan palette and imaginative use of stylized silhouettes of trees, the visual world of Maxfield Parrish.

For the third act, set at the Witch’s house, McCollum gave us a crazy-quilt world of brilliant colors and jagged geometry, very much like the style of illustration found in modern children’s picture books, at once delightful and sinister.

In Oberlin’s production, guest artist and conservatory alumna Karen Jesse sang the very ripe role of the Witch who presides over the gingerbread house of horrors in the haunted Ilsenstein Forest.
Costume designer Chris Flaharty gave her a brightly colored hoop dress fashioned of panels of garish fabric, a pair of curled-up pointy boots and an Oliver Hardy derby, topping it with scary clown whiteface that exaggerated Jesse’s rich grimaces as she brought the Witch to terrifying life.

At Sunday’s matinee, the title roles were sung ably by Nicole Levesque (Hansel) and Emily Hopkins (Gretel). Director Jonathon Field made a significant choice for the scene in which Gretel teaches Hansel to dance. Instead of a charming lesson in steps and jollity, Field had the two children tussle, in a tit-for-tat escalation of petty aggression, lending an ironic dimension (and a certain realism) to the children’s “dancing.”

The complex role of the Mother was sung on Sunday by Oberlin junior Hannah Hagerty, who deserves special credit for her fine acting and her marvelous voice. She easily conveyed the conflict at the heart of the character, at once angry, frustrated, fearful and just plain famished.

Hunger is at the heart of “Hansel und Gretel,” and Hagerty’s intense reaction, when Father (sung well by Michael Davis) brings home an unexpected bundle of food, is quite believable.

Admittedly, no one in this tale by the Brothers Grimm is wholly exemplary, and Field’s staging is consistent in demonstrating this, though one wonders if it goes a bit too far. In the final scenes, when the Witch is thrust into the oven, Hansel holds her kicking feet down while she expires.

Afterward, where Humperdinck’s original conception has the Witch emerge from the oven as a gingerbread cookie, Field has her corpse dragged out and tossed onto the ground, whereupon Hansel, with his father’s ax, beheads the Witch and parades around the stage, holding the head up high by the hair. Too much?

Likewise, the final chorus of liberated children, with its words of piety and faith in God, is given a sinister undercurrent by having the children, scowling fiercely, rhythmically punctuate their hymn with thrusts of their clenched fists, evoking uneasy associations with German youth groups of recent history.

One prefers to remember the moment of pure, faux-naive beauty that concludes this production’s second act.

As Hansel and Gretel sing their evening prayer and fall asleep, the stars come out and a huge, Melies-like moon rises behind the trees, and, as it blossoms into a cascade of fluttering shapes (projected effects being a Field specialty), 14 youthful angels appear, descending from heaven to tuck the children in and bless their slumber with a round dance that is at once old-fashioned and timeless.