Saturday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert was a mix of the familiar, the largely unfamiliar, and the brand new. It provided food for thought, debate, and enlightenment.
Frank Joseph Haydn composed 104 Symphonies. I am hardly alone among enthusiasts of Classical Music in only being familiar with about 20 – mostly from Haydn’s later period. This concert began with the Symphony No. 34 in C minor, the first time it was presented in the Cleveland Orchestra’s 101-year history – thus a largely unfamiliar work by a well-known composer. The symphony features a structural innovation that was later employed in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata: the opening movement is a somber adagio, rather than the usual allegro. One can only wonder how the audience of Haydn’s day reacted when hearing this opening. The following movements – an Allegro, a Menuet, and Presto – created a sense of rising tension that kept the 21st Century audience’s attention from beginning to end. Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation was a model of precision, transparency, and taste.
The totally unfamiliar work was Bernd Richard Deutsch’s Okeanos – a concerto for organ and orchestra being given its American premiere. By “a concerto for organ and orchestra”, I mean just about every instrument available – including strings, four flutes, three clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, celeste, harp, a full range of percussion (snare dump, bongos, rute, temple blocks, woodblock, claves, wind machine, triangle, wind chimes, bell tree, crotales, bells, crash cymbals, 12 plate bells, gong, Chinese opera gong, nipple gong, tam-tam, xylophone, anvil, vibraphone, glockenspiel), and of course the organ. Everything but the veritable kitchen sink. During the pre-concert talk, the composer spoke of how he was inspired by the Adriatic Sea – and the work's four movements – Water, Air, Earth, and Fire – all refer to elements of nature. Whatever the programmatic implications, the work’s multiple layers of tonality and orchestration – almost waves in themselves, held the audience’s attention. Interestingly, the composer stated that while the work was not “tonal”, in the melodic sense, there was often a reference tone. The question of tonality vs. atonality got me to thinking whether this was the appropriate term for whether music uses a traditional melodic/harmonic scheme. Any sound one hears, from a bird’s song, to an orchestra, to fingernails on a chalkboard is, by definition, a “tone” – thus all music is tonal. When one is referring to “atonal” music, one generally means music that does not adhere to a traditional (in Western Music) triadic melodic/harmonic scheme – i.e., based on major and minor thirds. During the 19th Century, that triadic scheme became increasingly chromatic – most notably in Wagner’s music. Scriabin expanded that scheme using fourths – altering triadic music to quartal. Schoenberg, whose early works expanded on Wagner’s chromaticism, eventually shattered the triadic paradigm altogether. But his music was still tonal, as it consisted of tones. And so does the music of Elliot Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Deutsch.
As for the performance, soloist Paul Jacobs was every bit as brilliant as he was during his appearance here in 2017. The work’s many technical hurdles, including complex footwork, lightning-fast registration changes, finger-twisting passages, glissandi, and dynamic shifts were handled with an unshowy aplomb that belied their difficulties. Welser-Möst and the orchestra delivered a collaboration that made one feel as if they’d known the concerto all their lives. One familiar with concerts in Cleveland may take the technical polish of our orchestra for granted, but it’s wise to remember it’s the result of constant dedication and hard work. In the words of Lebron James, “nothing is given, everything is earned.”
Following intermission was a dive into the familiar: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. But here, there was something unfamiliar: Welser-Möst’s interpretation which has already earned criticism from one critic. Here one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known works was scrubbed free of the sickly sentimentality to which the Russian composer is all too often subjected. The noble melody of the andante, which has the distinction of sounding bereaved despite being in a major key, was imparted with a dignity which belies the reputation Tchaikovsky had during the late-2oth Century as a “weak”, “feminine” composer. (Of course, the conflation of weak and feminine in Tchaikovsky is simply a combination of misogyny and homophobia that one would expect from music scholars who are, as a rule, conservative and unimaginative.) One interesting note: a few days before the concert, the orchestra published a video of the Tchaikovsky’s rehearsal. I was struck by the manner in which Welser-Möst’s conducting in rehearsal matches that in performance. He apparently feels no need to put on a choreographic display for the audience’s entertainment. The sincerity, both in Welser-Möst’s interpretation and his manner of presenting it, was appreciated by the audience and this listener.