“Midsummer” Triumph for Kahane as Conductor

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Haydn, Mendelssohn: Peter Otto (violin), Cleveland Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane (conductor) Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 08.10.2014 (MSJ)


Stravinsky: Suite from Pulcinella
Haydn: Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major, H. VIIa:1
Mendelssohn: “Scherzo” and “Nocturne” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, “Italian”

Ah, the joys of marketing! This concert of the Cleveland Orchestra was billed as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Technically by the calendar (if not by tradition), it was still midsummer in Ohio. At least that’s closer to the truth than the contents of this program. Guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane led a performance that contained only two short selections from Felix Mendelssohn’s enchanting hour’s worth of incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, no matter, for it was a superb concert and a successful debut for Kahane. Though he has appeared with the orchestra a number of times as a virtuoso pianist, this was his conducting debut with the ensemble, and he displayed tremendous alertness and energy throughout the concert. At times, it was almost too much energy, but that’s far preferable to the alternative.

The opener was the suite from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella. Last year, I had the opportunity to review a concert—one of the great Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’ last U.S. appearances before his death this year—with a grand, relaxed, but highly characterized performance of Stravinsky’s complete work by the Boston Symphony. It was notable for rejecting the tradition of a fast, brittle Pulcinella. Kahane’s take on the instrumental suite from the ballet was much closer to the mainstream manner, but the conductor took great care to encourage vivid characterization and phrasing by the orchestra. Kahane also displayed remarkable confidence and trust in the group’s brilliant soloists, frequently by not conducting, offering cues and the occasional gesture, but simply letting the soloists bloom. And bloom they did, demonstrating once again that within the orchestra’s unified cohesion, each player nonetheless has the abilities of a star. The performance was witty and energetic, only losing a little clarity in the fast finale due to the reverberant acoustics of the Blossom Music Center pavilion.

Illustrating these star qualities was first associate concertmaster Peter Otto, who was featured in Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Otto has been with the orchestra since 2007, and has appeared previously as soloist in Bernstein’s Serenade, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and Mozart’s Haffner Serenade. Here he revived Haydn’s rarely-heard first violin concerto, with Kahane leading from the harpsichord. Otto unleashed formidable technical bravura in the cadenza of the first movement—a rather unidiomatic though exciting affair by Carl Flesch—and in the most brilliant passages of the finale. Above all, though, his account was focused on poise and lyrical singing, particularly in the slow movement. Otto’s violin, a 1769 Guadagnini, let him float phrases with cultivated tone, never ungainly forced nor overly sweet. Kahane and the orchestra provided alert support. Even if the concerto is not from Haydn’s absolute top-drawer, it still proves that’s Haydn’s leftovers are still better than many composers’ best pieces.

After intermission came the two Midsummer Night’s Dream excerpts, which whetted the appetite to hear the entire set. Kahane’s take on the “Scherzo” was a daredevil affair, taken at a mischievously quick clip. The stellar woodwinds thrived on their solos, and the strings played with phenomenally nimble precision. The romantic “Nocturne” was less settled, with Kahane seeming more at home in the urgent middle section than the languorous outer parts.

Ending the evening was Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. Kahane’s tempos were fleet, pushing right to the edge of what works audibly in the pavilion’s acoustics. But while many conductors flog away, apparently chopping wood with their gestures, Kahane’s baton-free hands—not to mention the rest of his body—were dedicated to expressive phrasing and hair-trigger rhythmical responses. This kept the music, particularly the first movement, from ever sounding nerve-wrackingly relentless, no matter how fast the pace. I wouldn’t have minded a touch more space in the pilgrim-march slow movement, but the conductor kept it effectively flowing. The third movement “Con molto moderato” often gets soporific, but he kept it deftly moving with a buoyancy that proved just how lovely it is. Best of all was the finale, where Kahane set a blistering tempo that the orchestra was nevertheless able to nail with breathtaking precision. The conductor sorted textures so that melodies emerged in sharp relief, even during the tangled passages of counterpoint that pile up near the end. Indeed, not only did the performers keep the textures vibrantly clear, they even began to press the tempo near the end for an exhilarating close.

It was a triumph for Kahane, and a brilliant example of how to bring music to life with shrewd leadership, endless energy, dramatic flair, and complete trust in the genius of one’s players. Let’s hope it leads to further Cleveland conducting appearances by him—maybe even one actually containing all of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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