The art of the conductor is a rare and elusive one. There are conductors who are walking encyclopedias of music, and those who have baton techniques which thrill the audience (at least) as much as inform the orchestra. There are conductors glowing with charisma. There are those who are merely intimidating. And there are those who commune with the orchestra and from whose hearts the music pours. Such a conductor is Stanisław Skrowaczewski.
I’ve heard a dozen or so performances of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. They have ranged from the superficial to the bombastic to the ponderous. Never have I heard this work, and its reflection of the composer’s suffering under the Stalinist regime, bared so unsparingly as tonight’s performance by The Cleveland Orchestra - led by Maestro Skrowaczewski. His interpretation of the Fifth was doubtless the result of a lifetime of studying and performing the work (Skrowaczewski is nearly 92). Tempos, balance, rubati – all were perfectly judged and entirely organic. I hope the performance was recorded, although I doubt even the finest recording could fully reproduce the incredible sonority where the Orchestra, justly known for incomparable refinement, let loose with a ferociousness I’ve never before heard from them. There were individual performances of distinction tonight, including moving violin solos by Peter Otto, but collectively the Orchestra exceeded the sum of its parts in a way all orchestras should, but few actually do.
I’ve been attending performances by The Cleveland Orchestra, on and off, since 1976. I’ve heard them in Severance Hall and at Blossom (and during their visits to Symphony Hall in Boston when I lived there) more times than I can remember. In nearly 40 years of concert going, this is, on balance, the greatest live performance I’ve ever heard from our beloved orchestra.