Sibelius Pyrotechnics, Followed by Actual Fireworks

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Dvořák: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Cleveland Orchestra, Hans Graf (conductor) Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 05.07.2014 (MSJ)
Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italien
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”

The Cleveland Orchestra kicked off their summer season at Blossom Music Center with fireworks…eventually. The magnificent pyrotechnics at the end of the concert should have been foreshadowed by the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s festive Capriccio Italien, which opened the evening. But under the baton of substitute conductor Hans Graf, it was a damp squib. Graf would presumably describe his approach as “letting the music speak for itself,” but that would be an excuse for a general lack of energy and a refusal to give this orchestral romp color and flexibility. After all, it isn’t too much to ask that a capriccio be at least a touch capricious. The Cleveland Orchestra played pristinely, giving the conductor exactly what he asked for.

Fortunately, Graf’s main contribution to the program was more interesting, with a solid, traditional performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony in the second half. Graf observed the traditional distortions of Dvořák’s score, rushing ahead to a new tempo halfway through the slow introduction to the first movement, then easing back for the second theme of the allegro proper. This is fine, if predictable. I’d rather hear a conductor be more flexible and spontaneous than is traditional, or else give us a truly literal reading of the score, something that few ever opt to do. Graf charted the safe course, but navigated it securely, which is certainly defensible when working under the pressure of replacing scheduled conductor Jaap van Zweden, who canceled on his doctor’s advice due to shoulder issues. Still, more sense of risk could have galvanized the performance.

The highlight of the Dvořák was a heartfelt reading of the famous “Largo,” featuring exquisite English horn solos. The final halting statement of the theme was marred only by a ringing cell phone in the audience. Graf and the orchestra remained focused, restoring the mood by the hushed closing. The scherzo and finale were robust, although the latter seemed to misfire after a strong build up of energy was dissipated by an overly-quick spin through the closing pages.

But without any question, the musical fireworks of the evening came with the appearance of yet another substitute: Augustin Hadelich, deputizing for an ill Renaud Capuçon. After the slack Tchaikovsky, the mood of the concert changed the instant Hadelich walked out on stage, already physically poised and evidently ravenous to tear into the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. Only thirty, Hadelich immediately staked out his claim as one of the top handful of violinists in the world. His technique is fearsomely brilliant, bringing to mind the pyrotechnics of a Heifetz. But Hadelich is not alone in having a tremendous technique. Many young violinists do. He is, however, nearly alone among players his age in being able to harness that technical skill to a rare emotional intensity, and the two combined make for little short of a jaw-dropping experience. This violinist plays as if his life depends on it.

Hadelich began the opening movement quietly, but this was not to be a lingering, sentimental performance. There was an aptly Sibelian restlessness moving the piece forward like a force of nature. The violinist conjured breathtaking tenderness in linking passages, but conveyed dangerous bite in the aggressive pages without ever losing control of pitch, rhythm, and pulse. This creative risk-taking energized the orchestra. The slow movement was again flowing and not distended, though the buildup of emotion was cathartic. Hadelich’s finale flirted with flashiness, zipping along at a tempo to rival Heifetz, but his seriousness of purpose kept it from coming across as showboating. Instead, its smile was that of a death’s head—a true danse macabre.

The evening ended with a tremendous fireworks display, symphonic in its own right with its peaks and valleys building to a stunning conclusion.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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