Varied Program Excels in Mozart’s Requiem

United StatesUnited States  Rouse, Frank, Mozart: Mary Kay Fink (piccolo), Jessica Rivera (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano), Garrett Sorenson (tenor), John Relyea (bass-baritone), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (Robert Porco, director), Cleveland Orchestra / David Robertson (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 4.5.2014

Rouse: Rapture
Frank: Will-o’-the-Wisp
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626

Walking outside into bright sunlight is always a bit of a surprise in Cleveland, but doing so after a concert featuring vivid performances of mostly dark-hued works intensified the disorientation after Sunday’s closing of a weekend series led by guest conductor David Robertson. But, then again, the changeable weather of the Cleveland Orchestra’s program was just as dynamic and unpredictable as this year’s Ohio spring has been.

Most like the sun-drench outside was American composer Christopher Rouse’s Rapture, a study in acceleration, crescendo, and non-stop consonance. I appreciate Rouse’s creative approach and acknowledge his mastery—there can be no question that he writes exactly what he means—but I often find myself frustrated with his all-or-nothing stance. Though more known for his thorny, relentlessly dark and dissonant works such as Iscariot, the flip-side is when Rouse writes something positive like Rapture, which almost eschews dissonance completely. The piece makes some beautiful sounds and textures, but I find the billowing waves of harmonious sound unsatisfying after a few minutes. Without the repetitious process of minimalism or the narrative contrast provided by the use of occasional dissonance, Rapture began to feel like watching someone on an ecstatic trip of some sort, while the witness remains unmoved. What was impressive, though, was the gleaming sound of the Cleveland players under Robertson, who energized textures vigorously.

A generation younger than Rouse is Gabriela Lena Frank, whose Will-o’-the-Wisp completed the first half of the concert. The piece, a tone poem for piccolo and orchestra, was commissioned for these concerts, and received its world premiere. Frank’s own multicultural background (a Peruvian-Chinese mother and a Lithuanian-Jewish father) is reflected in the work, which opens with a beguiling blend of the orchestral strings’ bass section playing in high harmonics with soft, sustained rolls on the mallet percussion instruments. In the composer’s note in the program, she talked about how in her childhood, her mother would take traditional European fairy tales and give them a Peruvian spin as she told them to the little girl, and how these images have stayed with her into adulthood and have served as creative inspiration. Some of the work’s harmonies, including sweet major thirds in the violin solos played by first associate concertmaster Peter Otto, and the obvious similarities between the piccolo and the Latin American pan pipes, showed a Peruvian influence. But the piece was no mere musical postcard. Lyrical and mysterious, its dream-like atmosphere often left the piccolo solo as a silver thread running through lovely, sometimes suddenly ominous shadows. One could even think of the work as a musical equivalent to the “magical realism” of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though there something Kafkaesque about it, too. Unbeholden to any “school” or “ism,” Will-o’-the-Wisp reflects our multicultural age, which is wonderfully relevant. The fact that it also happens to be an outstanding piece of music makes it one of the highlights of the season.

The performance was part of the work’s triumph. The Cleveland Orchestra’s principal piccolo Mary Kay Fink proved that true virtuosity isn’t merely a matter of playing fast and brilliant. She deployed her mastery of an instrument that can often come across as shrill with elegance and poise, creating a rich and complex atmosphere out of deceptively simple materials. Few can make a high piccolo note hang out in the air with so much fullness of tone without ever grating the ear, but Fink did so repeatedly, savoring the tone poem’s lyricism throughout, while still striking sparks in the faster passages. Robertson and the orchestra matched her step by step. Audience response was very warm.

The stars of the second half of the program were arguably the singers of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, who are called upon in almost every movement of Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’s Requiem. I was a little skeptical when I saw that the full complement of choristers was going to be used, requiring a like-sized bolstering of the orchestral strings, but that was underestimating chorus director Richard Porco and Robertson as conductor. In fact, this was one of the most vital and incisive performances of the Requiem that I have heard, thank God, as my patience for sleepy-eyed sludge fests is very low. Porco had trained the chorus to crisply attack vigorous phrases, and Robertson assured that everyone involved was electrically engaged with this astonishing music.

I could quibble about the edition used, which was the standard completion of this unfinished work by Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, but I’ll credit Robertson that he kept the sections that strike me as more Süssmayr than Mozart—the “Sanctus,” “Benedictus,” and “Agnus Dei”—moving along so that the return to true Mozart in the “Lux aeterna” was exhilarating. But those compromised bits were only disappointing because of the intensity that the conductor built up during the first half of the piece. Having heard many concerts over the years, I’m not easily carried away, but the sudden visionary slack of the “voca me” passage of the “Confutatis” grabbed me in the throat, and the following “Lacrimosa”—where Mozart’s handwriting breaks off in the manuscript and Süssmayr took over—brought actual tears. Not many conductors are able to engage this orchestra on that higher plane where the performance becomes not merely spotless but actually passionate, so Robertson demonstrated true stature.

The quartet of solo vocalists were decent as a group, though more variable individually. Best was bass-baritone John Relyea, who was a sonorous pillar of strength in the “Tuba mirum,” joined by the miraculous trombone solo of Richard Stout. Soprano Jessica Rivera sang communicatively, though she pushes her otherwise attractive voice with a hard, fast vibrato. Garrett Sorenson has a honeyed tenor voice, though the relatively small size of it saw him get buried in the quartets. Elizabeth DeShong sang pleasantly enough, though not with an urgency to match her colleagues.

In short, this was one of the best concerts of the season. Surely Robertson, currently music director of the Saint Louis Symphony and principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony, will be on the short list for any upcoming major music directorships that open up in the United States in the next decade.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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