Cleveland’s All-Russian Program Celebrates the Volatile Joy of Surprise

 United StatesUnited States Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Gil Shaham (violin), Cleveland Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor) Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 3.8.2013. (MSJ)

Glinka: Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla”
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100

Ah, the volatile joy of surprise. It’s the reason live concerts are always a glorious adventure. Saturday night, I went to hear the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center expecting to feast on Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony—a favorite—that somehow I had never bumped into in thirty years of concert-going all over the Midwestern United States. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto though, was a warhorse I first encountered in the mid-1980s when Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played it with my hometown band, the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra, right around the time her career was first taking off. As a grizzled old critic, I had become a bit jaded about the familiar showpiece, having heard it live several times over the years.

A reminder to self: expect the unexpected. As soon as Gil Shaham walked on stage with a disingenuous grin, I had to wonder what critical angle I would take. As the orchestra began playing under guest conductor Kirill Karabits, Shaham kept smiling in childlike wonder as he listened, his expression mutating as the first shadows passed. Could he really still be that much possessed of such an open-hearted love of music?

Yes, and how! With the first entry from his Stradivarius, Shaham quietly but richly filled the pavilion with astonishing life. Subsequent passages had nothing novel about them, except for making the familiar seem freshly minted, experienced as if for the first time, despite the fact that Shaham has performed the concerto many times. Already masteful when he recorded it twenty years ago, his interpretation remains essentially the same. But instead of falling prey to routine, Shaham was alive with the elusive magic that makes one understand why musicians go to all the trouble to master difficult instruments and play intricate works by long-gone composers.

Shaham’s handling was as close to perfect as anyone could want. The first movement was spacious but concentratedly emotional, as he leaned toward the conductor to synchronize some of the tricky passages, and elsewhere engaging with the first violins. At times, he appeared to be directing his tone toward different sections of the audience. That sense of human connection animated everything, including the breathtakingly hushed Canzonetta and the explosive finale, which left broken hairs dangling from the end of his violin bow. After a rapturous standing ovation, Shaham yielded an encore, the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for violin—and on this occasion, low-flying helicopter. Happily, the interloper realized he could never fly as high as Shaham, and left.

The opener was a brisk run-through of Glinka’s ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’ Overture—always a pleasure to hear, and the orchestral playing was glorious, from the precise chattering of the initial gestures through the richness of the second theme. Karabits, a young conductor with a fair amount of buzz, was energetic and buoyant, though one could argue that the tempo was a hair fast for the reverberant acoustic. Though the orchestra’s playing was perfect, detail was blurred by the resonance of the hall.

What I had imagined would be the main event turned out to be dessert. Karabits’ bright and exuberant view of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 was certainly in line with program annotator Peter Laki’s description of the finale as “happy and bright.” And such a straightforward interpretation is certainly defensible. But I’m going to be the odd man out and say that it still left me wanting something more. The monolithic first movement was loud, but never truly baleful. Karabits was clearly having fun with the mischievous second movement, but is its sting really only decorative? And instead of keeping the slow movement moving along, shouldn’t the conductor dare to explore its otherworldly chill? And is the build-up of energy toward the end of the last movement really benign? If so, why the sudden pulling back into malevolent muttering just before the huge final crescendo? Though Karabits led with energy and precision (with some gestures apparently more for audience benefit than for the players), he rarely made use of the kind of breathtaking dynamic range this orchestra displays under music director Franz Welser-Möst. There seemed to be layers of ambiguous undercurrents that weren’t explored. Karabits struck me as a decent young conductor, with plenty of energy and charm, but no real chemistry with the orchestra, and some years of wisdom away from plumbing the depths of this complex masterpiece.

Mark Sebastian Jordan