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.

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