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Cleveland Orchestra turning to one of its own for 2018-19 curtain raiser

September 17, 2018

Cleveland Orchestra turning to one of its own for 2018-19 curtain raiser

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Any number of composers could have penned a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra centennial.

Only one, though, could have written “Pantheon,” the work due for its premiere this week on the group’s Severance Hall season opener: Jeffrey Rathbun.

An accomplished composer as well as the orchestra’s assistant principal oboist, he’s the one artist who could have crafted such an insider’s tribute to his colleagues in the Cleveland Orchestra.

“I know this orchestra better than most, and I wanted to contribute something for the [100th] anniversary,” Rathbun said. ” It’s such a great feeling to have this opportunity. I didn’t expect it.”

Rathbun’s interest in writing a piece for the orchestra he’s served since 1990 long predates the upcoming 101st season. He first broached the subject with music director Franz Welser-Most and others in the fall of 2016. The title, however, “Pantheon,” is more recent.

While writing the music, a collection of solos for several principals, he came across the word “pantheon” in a review, and was intrigued by one of its definitions: an assembly of distinguished people.

“I thought, ‘That fits the orchestra perfectly,’” Rathbun recalled, noting with fondness that his colleagues “can pretty much play anything. I just know they’re going to play their hearts out.”

Not that he went out of his way to challenge anybody. If anything, Rathbun said, the 10-minute “Pantheon” should be less demanding on performers and listeners than some of the new European music the orchestra has been featuring of late.

After a soft introduction, the piece introduces several ideas, only to derive new harmonies from that music and use those as catalysts for transformations. A short coda then leads to a peaceful conclusion.

“It has its own personality, I think,” Rathbun said. “I think it has enough variety and interest that it doesn’t sound like you’re hearing the same thing over and over.”

The same could be said of the larger program. In addition to “Pantheon,” the season-opening concert includes Tchaikovsky’s complete “Swan Lake” and a second contemporary work: “Left, Alone,” a piano concerto for the left hand by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen.

Unlike its famous predecessor, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, “Left Alone,” to be performed here by pianist Alexandre Tharaud, comes from a personal place. Although Tharaud is the work’s dedicatee and champion, the work was penned by Abrahamsen in response his own personal affliction, cerebral palsy, which left him with only two usable fingers in his right hand.

A third interesting thing about the 2018-19 season opener: Not only does it contain two works by two living composers. In a rare turn of events, both of those composers also have been featured previously by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Abrahamsen, as astute listeners may recall, is the force behind “Let me tell you,” a highlight of the 2016 season, while Rathbun saw performances of his “Motions for Cello” in 2000 and “Daredevil” in 1995, both led by music director laureate Christoph von Dohnanyi.

Still, for Rathbun, this is a special occasion. Very special.

Landing another commission from his own Cleveland Orchestra would have been rewarding enough, but to also have that work serve as the season opener and the year’s only world premiere? That’s almost more than he can process.

“To be the only world premiere this year and the first piece [of the season] is exciting and intimidating,” he said. “I’m really going try and just enjoy the week.”

PREVIEW

Cleveland Orchestra

What: Franz Welser-Most conducts Rathbun, Abrahamsen, and Tchaikovsky.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22.

Where: Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

Tickets: $21-$165. Go to clevelandorchestra.com or call 216-231-1111.

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