From New to Old, With a Nod to Ansel Adams

United StatesUnited States Shepherd, Shostakovich, Dvořák: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 21.4.2013 (MSJ)

Shepherd: Tuolemne (world premiere)
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor
Dvořák:Symphony No. 6 in D major

Some programs make it easy for the listener, going from familiar older music toward newer, more modern pieces. This was most decidedly not one of those! But the challenge paid off exhilaratingly as Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra traveled from the newly charted terrain of a world premiere to a well-established but tense piece from a half-century ago, finally arriving in the happy embrace of an old favorite.

Heading off the concert was the world premiere of a major new work by Sean Shepherd, the orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. Tuolemne is a set of three orchestral pieces inspired by black and white photographs of Ansel Adams, all from the Yosemite area of the Sierra Nevada range in California, the composer’s childhood home. The works are somewhat ekphrastic, in direct response to Adams’ images, but Shepherd uses that as a jumping-off point to explore his own ideas and memories.

The first movement, “Water Over Rock,” started with a breathtaking shimmer and rattle as parts of the vast percussion section evoked falling water and geological formations. Shepherd took these gestures and expanded them, slowly bringing in the rest of the stage-filling orchestra. The iconic Adams photograph “Winter Sunrise” triggered the second movement, the most aggressive of the three. Its opening scurried about precipitously, not unlike a symphonic scherzo, building at times up to clangorous peaks. The dense and gestural music lived up to the mountainous imagery, even as it resolutely avoided anything that could be construed as melodic.

The last movement was composed after “Lake Merced Country,” an energetic yet introspective image of a gnarled pine tree. While no part of the piece is particularly audience-friendly, this section retreated further inward, fading off into silence at the end. Alas, said silence was marred by what sounded like two if not three ring tones chirping in the balcony—bad luck or organized resistance? Hard to say, but if it was a protest, perhaps the complaint was the combined length, nearly a half hour. I found myself engaged by the opening of each movement, yet losing the thread as each part bustled along grimly. Perhaps it would take multiple hearings to get under the skin of this music: not all flowers bloom quickly. As it was, my first glimpse had me wishing it were more compact. Ansel Adams was only the point of departure, but the stark focus of his works could make even the sparsest music seem extravagant, and Shepherd’s work is rarely sparse. The orchestra’s playing was exquisite, and Welser-Möst led it vigorously, evidently now fully recovered from the recent back problems which forced him to cancel some performances.

Though of similar length to Tuolemne, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto emerges in one brooding breath. I last heard it live in Cleveland with Christian Tetzlaff and Jahja Ling about a decade ago. That was a perfectly respectable performance, but its memory was quite thoroughly blown away by Frank Peter Zimmermann and Welser-Möst. Where Tetzlaff played it with icy reserve, Zimmermann wrung the anguish out of the slow movements and attacked the fast ones with a manic ferocity—matched in every step by the conductor and orchestra. Most searing of all was the long cadenza that bridges the last two movements. Zimmermann started at a hush, slowly but surely building tension until he was literally stamping the stage floor on the accented chords of the cadenza’s harrowing climax. I don’t stand very often during the applause at concerts, feeling that American audiences want to be so appreciative, they tend to award standing ovations too easily. I stood for this one.

After so much harrowing darkness in the first half, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 surged in like a warm hug. And surged is the right word, for Welser-Möst set aside his customary reserve and drove this bucolic and at times rambling piece forward, hurtling three of the four movements to pulse-pounding endings. While I wouldn’t have minded a little more sorting of textures in places, and perhaps a little more lingering over that silvery piccolo solo in the trio of the scherzo, I can’t deny that of all the many times I have listened to this piece over the years, this performance was by some distance the best. It even pulled past the lovely Decca recording with the Clevelanders under their previous music director, Christoph von Dohnányi, hardly any slouch when it comes to Dvořák. I stood after this performance, too.

In short, this concert looked a little odd, if intriguing, on paper. In the moment, it turned out to be an exciting challenge, offering rewards as it traveled back in time.

Mark Sebastian Jordan