Two Different Composers, Each Inspired by the Past

United StatesUnited States Henze, Mendelssohn: Julia Fischer (violin), Itay Tiran (actor), Anya Matanovic (soprano), Emily Fons (mezzo-soprano), Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus (Lisa Wong, director), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 14.5.2017. (MSJ)

A Midsummer Night's Dream The Cleveland Orchestra Franz Welser-Möst, conductor Julia Fischer, violin Itay Tiran, actor Anya Matanovic, soprano Emily Fons, mezzo-soprano The Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus HENZE - Il Vitalino raddoppiato (for violin and chamber orchestra) MENDELSSOHN - Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Julia Fischer, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra (c) Roger Mastroianni

Henze: Il Vitalino raddoppiato, Chaconne for Violin and Chamber Orchestra

Mendelssohn: Overture, Op. 21, and Incidental Music, Op. 61, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Art music can tie together distant times and give listeners a pathway out of the daily grind to a larger view of humanity. Led by music director Franz Welser-Möst, both works on this Cleveland Orchestra program reached into the past to bring forward emotional responses that fit today. The world keeps changing, but human emotions remain recognizable, no matter how many centuries pass.

While German composer Hans Werner Henze got his start as part of the Darmstadt school of serial composers in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, he later explored a wide variety of styles, including free atonalism and traditional tonality. Il Vitalino raddoppiato falls into the latter group. Taking a Chaconne attributed to Italian baroque composer Tomaso Vitali (controversial, given some daring key changes) and expanded it into a concerto-sized study in obsession. The title translates as “The Vitalino Doubled,” as the original manuscript identified the composer as “Tomaso Vitalino.” This not-quite-right name and the work’s unusual length and far-flung key changes have caused some to doubt that its authenticity, though recent studies of the manuscript have matched the handwriting of the copyist to a known musician working at the Dresden court in the early 1700s. Whatever its provenance, the chaconne is a timeless work, and it inspired Henze to give it an intertwined doppelgänger.

Bringing the 1977 work to town for its Cleveland premiere, violinist Julia Fischer was commanding, seamlessly merging the original chaconne with Henze’s riffs, often alternating in four-bar stretches. Henze took the harmonic language even further afield, culminating in a breathtakingly introspective cadenza which held the audience rapt. Welser-Möst and the reduced forces of the orchestra were with Fischer every step of the way, creating a mesmerizing encounter with a work that, judging by the warm audience response, would be welcomed as return visitor.

After intermission, the concert went from a darkness to light. In my callow and misspent youth, I affected scorn for the music of Mendelssohn. He was less dramatic than Beethoven, less emotional than Schumann, less sweet than Schubert, less bizarre than Berlioz, less perfect than Mozart, and less witty than Haydn. But with age comes wisdom. In music, as in life, it’s important not to worry so much about what something isn’t and to treasure what it is. And Mendelssohn is grace, taste, and delicacy – wit wrapped in warmth, emotion tempered by poise, chemistry controlled by a precise guiding hand. But I couldn’t help but adore Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is filled with joy and wonder, and for all its familiarity, it can be tricky to bring off effectively. Happily, Welser-Möst’s strong interpretation brought it off brilliantly.

Not that I wasn’t worried, at first. The opening woodwinds’ “once upon a time” chords were surprisingly unkempt, not at all characteristic of this ensemble. But it was only a blip: the allegro began with a fleet tempo and deft string articulation. Welser-Möst defaults to fast speeds, so I was still concerned that his buttoned-down, unsmiling way might show up – the way this conductor often does Mozart and Beethoven. But a wonderful thing happened: Welser-Möst started pushing the tempo during the first forte, encouraging the players to charge into boisterous passages with great bravado. He also shaped crescendos and punched accents, giving a real sense of comedy and wit.

The comic delight was perfectly matched with selected passages from Shakespeare’s play by actor Itay Tiran, who played a satisfying range of characters, from mischievous Puck to expansive Oberon. Discreetly amplified so that he didn’t have to belt out the words, Tiran shaped his characterizations lovingly, emphasizing the humor over the romantic, absolutely of a piece with Welser-Möst’s approach. After a mock-piteous funeral march for the death of Thisbe, performed by the bumptious Artisans in the play, Tiran delivered the play’s question to Welser-Möst: “Maestro, would you care to see the epilogue?” Welser-Möst shook his head emphatically, “No!” and launched into the Dance of Clowns. Tiran scored a final laugh at the end, when he followed Puck’s magical good-night speech with an insouciant finger-pop out of his mouth.

With the prevalence of speed, I wondered if Welser-Möst would turn the Wedding March into a Wedding Sprint, but he was attentive to the tempo relationships throughout. One debatable tempo was the very flowing one adopted for the romantic passage at the end of the overture. When the passage returned at the end of the finale, it underscored lines from the play, and at the end of the passage, the conductor had to hold a fermata for a number of seconds to wait for the actor to finish, before moving on to the next passage. This suggests that the tempo could have been a little more relaxed, to better sync with the dialogue. But that’s minor in the context of a buoyant and high-spirited account.

Soprano Anya Matanovic had gleamingly clear intonation, critically important in the chiming high notes of “You Spotted Snakes,” and she harmonized beautifully with Emily Fons’ rich mezzo-soprano. They were joined by the joyfully poised Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus. It is worth pointing out that Mendelssohn originally wrote the vocal portions to a German translation, which fits Shakespeare’s words more smoothly. Here, the original English was shoehorned in, keeping the singers on their toes in Welser-Möst’s fleet speeds. One might have wished for a more yielding approach, but the brisk clip was characteristic of a vital, essentially anti-romantic interpretation.

The adaptation of lines from the play was not credited in the program, but it was skillfully done, including some passages underscored in Mendelssohn’s music. To play those passages by themselves makes little sense, but to skip them completely robs the variety of the composer’s grasp. Ideally, enough text should be included to show how the underscoring was deployed, without using every last bit of it – preferable to hearing only the standard four excerpts (Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne, Wedding March) alone again. Leaving out the texts misses the range of humor and heart that Shakespeare put in his play, and which Mendelssohn revivified three hundred years later. Nearly two hundred additional years later, this performance showed that our distant ancestors weren’t so different from us. Two key ingredients of a good life are still love and laughter.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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