August 08, 2011
By Mark Satola
Introducing three excerpts from Mendelssohn's music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," conductor Bramwell Tovey noted, "Many of you have heard this music in an ecclesiastical setting, some of you more than once, so perhaps it needs to carry a bit of a health warning -- in case it brings on palpitations."
Fortunately, medical attention was not needed as Tovey led an incisive and near-perfect reading of the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March Sunday at Blossom Music Center.
The rest of the evening followed suit, with first-rate performances of works by Richard Strauss and George Enescu. Latvian violinist Baiba Skride also made her Cleveland Orchestra debut at the concert, with the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch.
The English-born Tovey, who is also an award-winning composer, has been best known to Americans as conductor, since 2004, of the New York Philharmonic's "Summertime Classics" series, though he also has had a high profile as music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Canada, which he has led since 2000.
Skride played Bruch's First Violin Concerto with a beautiful richness of tone, smooth-as-silk phrasing and an Apollonian approach that emphasized the classical form of Bruch's masterpiece.
She was lyrical and intense in the opening Allegro moderato and the deeply felt Adagio, and brought considerable fire to the Allegro energico finale, where her sure-fingered technique and interpretive poise earned her a loud and long ovation.
Tovey again addressed the audience after the intermission, providing a detailed road map to Richard Strauss' tone poem "Don Juan," outlining the music's close adherence to its poetic source, a long poem by Nikolaus Lenau. He drew attention to some of the instrumental felicities that the casual listener might miss, including the sensuous oboe solo at the heart of the seduction scene.
Assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun was especially fine during this lengthy passage. Tovey's reading was briskly paced and exciting.
Introducing the final work on the program, George Enescu's famous Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, Tovey revealed that the Cleveland Orchestra, inexplicably, had not played this great favorite since the 1950s.
He then proceeded to rectify this peculiar omission with a dangerously fast performance of Enescu's showpiece that had the players working hard to maintain their usual perfect ensemble.
Enescu gave no quarter in his wild evocation of Romanian dance, and there were some moments in Sunday night's reading that were a little rough around the edges. But even that was in keeping with the sense of exhilarating abandon that the composer built into his score.
The program that Tovey conducted Sunday for his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra was significantly different from the one announced earlier this year. But while one might have regretted not hearing works by Walton, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Parry (whose ode "Blest Pair of Sirens" had been promised), the satisfying performances that Tovey so winningly led more than made up for it.