Vaughan Williams Triumphs in a Generous Program

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival [3] – Prokofiev, Falla, Berlioz, Vaughan Williams, Mahler: Blossom Festival Chorus (Lisa Wong, director), Kent Blossom Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra / Vinay Parameswaran, Jahja Ling (conductors), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 21.7.2018. (MSJ)

ProkofievClassical Symphony (Kent Blossom Chamber Orchestra/Parameswaran)
FallaThe Three-Cornered Hat Suite No.1 (KBCO/Parameswaran)
BerliozBenvenuto Cellini Overture (Cleveland Orchestra and KBCO members/Ling)
Vaughan WilliamsSerenade to Music (CO, KBCO members/Ling)
Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D major (CO/Ling)

Every summer at the Blossom Music Festival, one of the most delightful concerts—and a great value for the money—is the marathon featuring the Kent Blossom Chamber Orchestra along with the Cleveland Orchestra. The smaller ensemble was formed the first year Blossom opened, in 1968, as a training ground for talented young players. Now under the baton of Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor Vinay Parameswaran, the project continues to impress.

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was a perfect choice for the group, abounding in opportunities for color, yet requiring the players to listen attentively to each other to coordinate the disparate parts. Parameswaran encouraged the young players to perform crisply, yet he wisely chose not to push the tempos, allowing the music ample space to unfold in the generous acoustic of the Blossom Pavilion. Faster tempos, while superficially exciting, would have blurred the details that the musicians so eagerly shaped.

From Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, the first suite is less often heard than the second, but it’s no less colorful and vibrant, offering bold moments with sonic heft. The chamber-sized deployment of strings didn’t quite provide the ideal substance needed, though a larger complement might have swamped the winds, who cannot yet compare with their Cleveland Orchestra mentors at filling up a lively hall like Blossom. Nonetheless, it was shapely and spirited.

Members of the student ensemble joined the Cleveland Orchestra for the main concert, opening with a splendidly alert Benvenuto Cellini Overture by Berlioz. Long associated with the Clevelanders, Jahja Ling knows how to sort textures to fine effect, and dovetailed string phrases to ensure the glowing woodwinds that followed had plenty of air. Ling emphasized the contrast between the solemn “Pope theme” and the motif representing rakish adventurer Cellini, and the students blended seamlessly into the ensemble.

They were joined by the radiant voices of the Blossom Festival Chorus, prepared by Lisa Wong, in the surprise highlight of the evening, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. Immediately impressive was the orchestra’s change in color from the pungency in the Berlioz to the darker tenderness needed for the English composer’s setting of a passage from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect piece for a summer evening at an outdoor venue. Peter Otto, the orchestra’s first associate concertmaster, led off with gorgeous solos.

There are three sanctioned versions of the vocal parts: the original for 16 solo singers, a later one with four soloists and chorus, and the full choral version done here. The singers shaped the texts meaningfully, and Ling was fully alive to the subtle mood shifts, creating a memorable, lovely experience. It was an all-too-rare chance to exult in this composer’s art. The question has to be asked: Cleveland Orchestra, where are the Vaughan Williams symphonies? As the years pass and questions of fashion fall away, the composer is growing in stature, yet still his symphonies are almost never played by this orchestra, which can clearly do the style full justice.

Mahler has fared better over the years in Cleveland. Jahja Ling’s rendition of his first symphony—with the Clevelanders alone—was colorful and pleasant, though lacking consistency and never ultimately reaching for the heights. Though the first movement started genially, problems arose. The offstage trumpets near the beginning were not far enough away, considering that the backstage area of the Blossom Pavilion is open on the sides to the auditorium. With today’s camera technology (in use for Blossom’s new video walls), it wouldn’t be difficult to put the brass with a portable video monitor to watch the conductor—extra effort, but that’s what the greatest music always requires.

Despite a good head of steam, the still center of the movement failed to cast a spell. The players were as skillful as ever, but Ling did not appear to ask for any heightened intensity, and didn’t receive it. Early in the coda, a long, gradual crescendo is designed to build up enormous tension. Mahler’s score calls for the entire passage to become “imperceptibly but steadily broader,” a detail that few conductors bother to notice—including Ling, despite his attention to detail elsewhere. Lacking too often was a determination to squint past tradition and make an entity living anew in the moment.

In the symphony’s revised version, done here, the scherzo came second. The original five movements were subtitled ‘Titan,’ and the orchestra’s marketing department seized on that name for this concert although, strictly speaking, this wasn’t the ‘Titan.’ The revision deleted a lyrical interlude, proceeding directly to the boisterous scherzo, in the style of a ländler, a country waltz. Ling’s tempo was rightly vigorous, but there were rhythmic inconsistencies. Some players were springing the rhythms, giving a snap to turns of phrase. Others were playing the rhythms very literally as written. Ideally, the conductor indicates one approach or the other.

Principal double bass Maximilian Dimoff played the opening solo of the dark third movement with exquisite beauty. Whether it should be played with exquisite beauty is another question altogether. Whether Ling didn’t ask for greater characterization or Dimoff chose not to go there was impossible to discern, but it stood in contrast to Jeffrey Rathbun’s entrance soon after on solo oboe. Rathbun delivered intense character, showing the level that could have been achieved. But neither the sarcasm nor bleak gloom of Mahler’s mock funeral march came through here, well-played though it was. The gentle middle section of the movement was much better—tender and restrained without a trace of sentimentality, but the intermittent commitment was perplexing, though never a poor showing. One longed for the chance to break through to a higher plane, which never quite happened.

The finale was the best part, with Ling giving further introspective space for the lyrical sections between stormy outbursts. But in the closing pages the heights were walked up to, not stormed, even with the horns standing near the end, as directed in the score. It was a pleasant, solid performance, which the audience enjoyed and saluted warmly at the end.

But for a composer like Mahler, who lived his creative life on the visionary edge, is it enough?

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 is supported by an Individual Excellence grant in Criticism from the Ohio Arts Council.

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