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Cleveland Orchestra wrangles with early 20th-century music, and wins

September 28, 2018

Cleveland Orchestra wrangles with early 20th-century music, and wins

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Don’t let the Cleveland Orchestra’s main subscription program get lost in the shuffle this week.

All the fuss may be about Saturday’s 100th anniversary gala, but the program coming Sunday is worth as much or more attention.

Instead of taking on a lighter load on a week with two programs, music director Franz Welser-Most has heaped his and the orchestra’s plate full of demanding Modernist masterworks. What’s more, judging by the performances Thursday night at Severance Hall, it’s fair to say they’ve cleaned that plate.

It’s not a night of easy listening. Aside from the sweet “Classical Symphony,” the two main works by Bartok and Prokofiev are snarling, prickly, brutish things, conceived in hard-headed efforts to redefine or expand the very genres they represent.

But the effort of attending, of submitting to their will, is worthwhile. Truly, in this case, the music’s so ugly it’s beautiful.

Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” serves as a sort of palette cleanser, a peace offering to woo patrons into their seats and keep them there. Aside from some initial haziness, too, the performance Thursday under Welser-Most was right on the stylistic money: spry, articulate, deftly balanced. An unclouded reflection of Classical virtues.

Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 could not have stood in sharper contrast. While the genteel strains of Prokofiev still hung in the air, pianist Yefim Bronfman gave the orchestra’s new Steinway the most intense, percussive workout of its young life.

Clevelanders of late have grown accustomed to hearing Bronfman play Beethoven and Brahms. His Bartok represented something else entirely, and something equally thrilling. Instead of a regal, unflappable presence, Bronfman Thursday was a tempest.

Yet there was method to his madness. Inside the hurricanes he generated in the first and third movements, one could easily hear the music’s thematic eyes, the backbones to what might otherwise sound like chaos. Bronfman, in short, isn’t just a physical force. He’s an artistic one, too.

And what a magnificent orchestra in the second movement. While Bronfman demonstrated the piano’s potential to sound hard and soft at once, the strings evoked shivers with the most nuanced of dissonance and the iciest of trills.

Much more in this vein awaited in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3, a work rooted in the composer’s little-known Symbolist opera, “The Fiery Angel.” Here, for 35 straight minutes, the orchestra under Welser-Most (who advised the audience to listen for “all the complexity of the human soul”) functioned like some fabulous machine, churning out reams of the most crazed, diverse, creative, and utterly enigmatic music imaginable.

No resolutions or even footholds in this performance. Welser-Most and the orchestra seized on the music’s elusiveness, basking in its slithering, strange, and wandering nature and playing up its violent extremes of mood, volume, and pitch.

One star of the show was the contrabassoon, but the strings, percussion, brass, and other woodwinds all did their parts to keep the minds and ears of the audience in a constant state of high alert. If the “Classical Symphony” was a palette cleanser, Symphony No. 3 was a tangy, bitter, and piping-hot stew.

Up next: Mozart, Strauss, and Ravel. A decidedly tamer mix. Granted, next to what transpired Thursday, almost anything would seem calmer by comparison.

REVIEW

Cleveland Orchestra

What: Franz Welser-Most conducts Bartok and Prokofiev

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30.

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

Tickets: $21-$151. Go to clevelandorchestra.com or call 216-231-1111.

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