Thunderous Ovation for a Last-Minute Substitute      

United StatesUnited States Weber, Mozart, Shostakovich: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Brett Mitchell (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 20.7.2014 (MSJ)

 Weber: Overture to Der Freischütz
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor

The Cleveland Orchestra’s summer home, Blossom Music Center, is the place for dramatic last-minute substitutions this year. The season opener had already been hit with two replacements as both conductor and soloist became ill. This weekend brought another challenge as veteran Polish conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski had to cancel on short notice due to self-described “poor health” that has plagued the maestro during his ninetieth year. Instead of casting about at the last minute for a conductor of similar vintage—if there are any—the Cleveland Orchestra instead called upon assistant conductor Brett Mitchell to jump in and take over the program.

The young American conductor appears to be taking on the mantle of the brilliant James Feddeck, who made an outstanding save last year filling in on short notice for the orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst. Feddeck is now moving on to what promises to be an exciting career. But Welser-Möst must have keen perception in choosing whom to mentor in Cleveland, because Mitchell came through with flying colors Sunday evening, providing consistently strong leadership without ever putting a stranglehold on the orchestra’s flexibility.

The evening opened with an alternately atmospheric and vigorous account of the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. Mitchell sorted the textures so that the overlapping lines were as clear as possible in the rangy acoustics of the Blossom pavilion, and gauged the tempo to be energetic but not so fast that all detail would be lost. At one point he did gesture enthusiastically at the lower strings, apparently trying to emphasize what they were playing, though it was largely lost among all the lines by the rest of the ensemble. In such a lively acoustic, perhaps the best way to emphasize a detail would be to quiet everything surrounding it.

If the early-romantic drama of the Weber and the terror and bombast of Shostakovich go together well enough, the odd man out here was Mozart’s largely serene Piano Concerto No. 27. This was, however, exactly the program that Skrowaczewski planned, and the original soloist, Francesco Piemontesi, was still on board. Piemontesi played with clarity and poise, savoring the dappled colors and occasional passing shadows of Mozart’s final piano concerto. The pianist was also shrewdly aware of the score’s chamber music qualities, making eye contact with players in the orchestra as they traded musical comments back and forth. Mitchell led with a light touch, but quietly showed his presence in details such as the very restrained use of vibrato in the strings, and deftly pointed articulation throughout. Piemontesi returned the audience’s warm ovation with the flashy sparks of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice.

But the thing to make the audience roar (and they did) was a first-class performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Perhaps due to its familiarity, the piece is often given exaggerated performances or routine run-throughs; the former overstates the ostensibly hidden messages of defiance toward the Soviet authorities who kept the composer on a short leash, and the latter tosses it off as a noisy romp. Mitchell had its measure, bringing the score to life as written, catching details that almost every other conductor stomps over, yet doing so with emotion, life, and meaning. This performance was never just abstract notes on a page.

The first movement, moderately paced, never undersold the declamatory style of its composer, building to an intense, fiery peak. If one could slightly miss the abrasive edges of the Russian orchestras of the past who premiered and championed Shostakovich’s music while the western world still looked at it suspiciously, it was nonetheless a genuine joy to hear the instruments pushed to their extremes without losing poise and intonation. Under a lazy conductor, the Cleveland Orchestra could potentially sound too refined in music like this, but Mitchell made sure all the expressive details were snapped into sharp relief. The scherzo shifted effectively back and forth between crisp sarcasm and faux-folk Mahlerisms. The slow movement was achingly intense, leading to a finale as close to perfect as I ever expect to hear in a live concert. Shostakovich’s innumerable minute shifts of tempo were all incorporated, even the rarely-observed piu mosso just before the blindingly over-bright D major coda. In fact, the only other conductor I can think of who also did that passage as written was Mitchell’s mentor, Lorin Maazel, who passed away last week and was saluted in the concert’s program book. Perhaps Mitchell, too, remembered that connection. But the young maestro’s overall tempo in the coda came closer to his other teacher, Kurt Masur, ignoring the printed error in the score’s metronome marking and following the verbal and written indications Shostakovich left that the coda should be slow. Mitchell showed his independence by rejecting both Maazel’s fast version and Masur’s exaggeratedly slow one, and finding the ideally broad yet malevolent speed to drive home the nightmare of totalitarian life in Soviet Russia that Shostakovich “hid” in plain view, grinding to a harsh close of forced rejoicing.

It is unlikely that Mitchell had any doubts about his success after the thunderous ovation he received from the large audience. But if he did, it would have been swept away when the orchestra gave Mitchell a rare salute: during the third or fourth curtain call, the orchestra declined to stand for a bow, instead shuffling their feet and tapping their stands in their own ovation.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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