Saturday evening, Dan & I made the journey to Blossom Music Center to hear a mixed concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, their featured soloist Stephen Hough, along with the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra. It was a memorable concert.
I will confess that, even though Blossom is one of the premiere outdoor locations for concerts, I am not overly fond of the outdoor concert concept – particularly as it pertains to Classical music. Weather was a distraction at a Blossom concert we attended last year. This year, the main reason I went was to hear Stephen Hough – one of my favorite living pianists. This was the fifth time I’ve heard him in person and the third time at Blossom. I wish the orchestra would bring him to Severance Hall more often. Before the concert began, I briefly observed Hough consulting with the piano technician about the pedals of the piano – who made several adjustments while Hough tried out various passages.
The concert began earlier than usual, at 7pm, with a performance by the Kent/Blossom orchestra, primarily made of music students. Led by Brett Mitchell, the performances of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin were on a high level – only some uncertain string intonation revealed that a student orchestra was playing. The Siegfried Idyll possessed a remarkable sense of stillness, with expansive phrasing and a slower than usual tempo. Le tombeau de Couperin bathed the listener in piquant harmonies and the emergence and submergence of orchestral textures. As with many pieces, Ravel wrote both piano and orchestral versions of this memorial to Couperin. I’ve long held the piano versions of many of Ravel’s piano works in high esteem, but I prefer the orchestral in this piece.
After a brief intermission, the Cleveland Orchestra was onstage to begin the concert with Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, in a taut performance led by John Storgårds. This was the fourth overture Beethoven wrote for his only opera, which was initially called Leonore and had a difficult performance history. While observing the strings play several intricate passages, it occurred to me that the composer probably worked these sections out on the piano before he orchestrated the piece. They would sit well under the hand if played on the piano.
There was a bit of musical chairs while the orchestra shifted to accommodate the piano. Then, Hough strode onstage and began the most memorable part of the concert. The orchestra began the very brief tutti for Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat major, followed by Hough’s crisply pedaled rendition of the work's bravura opening passage. About two minutes into the piece, as Hough was playing a poetic transitional passage, I saw what I thought was a flashbulb to my left. As I was about to turn my head to glare down the photographer, I heard a tremendous BLAM! – realizing it wasn’t a flashbulb, but a lightning strike just outside the pavilion. Audience and orchestra were startled, and even Hough reflexively ducked. A lesser performer might have started over, but Hough never took his hands off the keyboard. Instead, he preceded to a high trill and held it while the audience calmed down. The performance then continued while low rumbling thunder served as reminder that, at the end of the day, Mother Nature does what she does. The Liszt is not an easy concerto to perform. It seems all too many pianists either turn it into a display for technical trickery, while others drain the life out of it to make it sound “musical” – and then there are those (who shall remain nameless) who can’t play the piece but insist on doing so anyway. Hough has the chops to dispatch the work’s technical hurdles – wide octave leaps, repeated notes, staccato jumps – while giving poetry to the concerto’s nocturne-like sections. The discreet pedaling (in a concerto where many pianists bluff through difficult sections by holding the sustaining pedal down) demonstrated why Hough worked with the technician before the concert. It was thrilling from beginning to end, and the audience rightly rewarded soloist and orchestra with a standing ovation. This was a performance that gave life to the maxim “the show must go on” and indeed it did as we were favored with an encore. I’ve long held Hough in high esteem as a pianist and musician, but Saturday night he demonstrated his grace under pressure and nerves of steel. (Hough has also recorded this concerto, which I heartily recommend.)
Following intermission, the Kent/Blossom orchestra joined the Cleveland Orchestra for a joint performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. Here’s where I will confess that I am not a huge Sibelius fan – not that I dislike his music, but it simply does not particularly stir me. Nevertheless, the work’s massive orchestral textures benefited from the “super-sized” orchestra. While students sat side-by-side with the orchestra’s tenured players, one had a sense of great traditions being passed on.