At the risk of sounding sexist, this past Saturday’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall could have been referred to as Ladies’ night.
Chinese born conductor Xian Zhang substituted for Semyon Bychkov, who was ill with stomach flu. Zhang is a rarity in the classical world: a female conductor. The relative scarcity of female conductors is the only reason I point it out. Zhang was joined by the Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, for the concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major, K.365. (I remember back in the 1980s, The Music Box at Shaker Square, where I worked, did a brisk business in Labeque sisters CDs.) It’s generally believed that Mozart composed the work to perform with his sister, Nannerl, so it’s entirely appropriate that the work was performed by two siblings at Severance. Piano duos are probably among the most challenging collaborative performances: the pianists are usually separated by about twelve feet, can’t see each other’s hands, and must depend on the conductor and that thing called instinct to maintain coordination and continuity. This is in marked contrast to works for piano and strings, where the pianist can observe the bow movements to determine entry points and the like. The Labeque sisters were entirely in tune with each other and the conductor to deliver a sparkling performance, with a lovely sense of songful intimacy in the slow movement – coupled with feathery figurations from the strings. They were rewarded by a standing ovation, and returned the gesture with an encore, the finale from Phillip Glass’ Four Movements for two pianos.
Following intermission, Zhang mounted the rostrum for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The work, composed with some difficulty in 1885, is not often performed. Like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the work has a programmatic nature, based on Byron’s poem of the same name. About an hour long, this is the longest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and provided a chance for the orchestra to really show its stuff, not just collectively but individual players – in particular the percussion. The work also has a brief organ passage at the end – about two minutes of music which is the definition of an easy paycheck. As my view of Zhang had been blocked by the piano lid during the Mozart, this provided me an opportunity to view her in action. Her baton technique was of the no-nonsense school personified by Toscanini and Szell: her beat was clear, cues were properly given, and her left hand adeptly controlled dynamics and balance. This was reflected in a rendition which was coherent (this is not an easy piece to hold together), clear, and beautifully played. I look forward to hearing more from her.