Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: CIM orchestra in Stravinsky and Dvorak

Sometimes, the best things in life are free. Danny and I had the choice of two free concerts last night: Matt Haimovitz playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto at Fairmount Presbyterian Church (where my parents were married in 1956), and the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Mark Baekbum Yee and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

There are remarkably few cello concertos by the great 19th Century Composers: Beethoven and Brahms wrote concertos that use the cello, but only in collaboration with the violin, or in Beethoven’s case, the violin and piano. Schumann and Dvorak wrote cello concertos which have entered the standard repertoire. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is a lovely piece, with many of the hallmarks of his most popular works: memorable themes, beautiful melodies, and wonderful orchestration. To say that Yee is a talented cellist is to say the obvious: No one gets into CIM without talent, and Yee’s technique is assured without being showy. Yee brought to his performance of the Dvorak a soaring lyricism and a youthful ardor that did not conflict with mature musicianship. Yet Yee does not have a particularly large sonority and there were issues of balance at times when conductor Carl Topilow allowed the orchestra to nearly drown out Yee.

The audience riot that accompanied the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has become legend. Less well known is the displeasure voiced by members of the orchestra over the work’s difficulty (frequent changes in meter and unusual tonality make it a real challenge). It says something for the improvement in orchestra playing over the last century that semi-professional orchestras dare to take on Stravinsky’s thorny score. Indeed, the Boston Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander made a memorable in concert recording of the work in the 1990s.

In the early stereo days, The Rite of Spring was frequently recorded and hi-fi enthusiasts often used it to show off their sound systems. This was repeated in the early digital era. There have been a number of great recordings of the work over the years, such as Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic, and the 1969 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez. (Stravinsky’s own recording, sadly, is nothing to write home about.) But over the past two decades, there has been a tendency to smooth over this revolutionary work, and recent recordings (including Boulez’s 1990s remake with the CO) have begun to sound relatively civilized, even bland.

That was not the case last night. Beyond the incredulity that a student orchestra, even an advanced one like CIM’s could navigate this work relatively unscathed, I was astonished at the passion they brought to the score. I must confess, though I have heard The Rite in broadcast performances and on recordings more times than I can remember, this was the first time I had attended a performance. Watching the various sections of the orchestra playing the piece was like watching a ballet of its own. Another factor that no recording I’ve heard has been able to capture is the sheer volume an orchestra can generate. This was no doubt emphasized by the rather small Kulas Hall. Percussionists Dylan Moffitt and Derek Tywoniuk are to be singled out for their fearless and vigorous enthusiasm in tackling of their parts. I have not been so swept away by a performance of this piece since the first time I heard it in 1984.

I began by commenting on the audience reaction to The Rite in 1913. Last night the audience was enthusiastic, totally silent during the performance and vigorously applauding at the conclusion -- except for one elderly woman who left midway through the first part. Topilow, who might have sensed this would happen in an audience that was populated by more gray haired people than students, preceded the performance with a brief talk where snippets from the score were played. I hope I never become the kind of old person who shies away from challenging art.

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