United States 2018 Blossom Music Festival  – Britten, Schumann: Vilde Frang (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 15.7.2018. (MSJ)
Antheil – Over the Plains
Britten – Violin Concerto, Op.15
Schumann – Symphony No.1 (‘Spring’) in B-flat major, Op.38
George Antheil is mostly remembered for his Ballet Méchanique, a score that scandalized audiences in the 1920s with its inclusion of airplane motors and propellers. Most of his later music is more sedate and typical of the populism of the United States in the mid-twentieth century, such as the short but highly interesting Over the Plains, a 1945 depiction of a pioneer journey across Texas. Finnish conductor John Storgårds recently made the first recording, and he brought his expertise to open this concert with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Festival.
At the start, the piece sounds like it might be some forgotten bit of Copland. But soon Antheil’s spikier personality speaks, and harmonic complications turn into a lively adventure that Storgårds clearly relished. It was a delightful rarity, and — thanks to the composer’s sometimes abrasive harmony — an unexpectedly perfect overture to Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, itself a rare visitor.
Britten’s concerto hasn’t had many champions, perhaps because of its quiet, uncertain ending, but its power and astonishing ability to capture the tone of its times (written on the eve of World War II) make it an important work that deserves to be better known. Maxim Vengerov has played and recorded it, bucking his own flashy reputation, but the work may have met its true champion in Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, making her Cleveland Orchestra debut.
Like the Antheil, it starts bucolically enough, but soon shadows gather. Instead of an emphasis on virtuosity, the solo instrument is cast in an expressive role, though the work is technically quite difficult. Frang made the music speak in a very humanly relatable way. The growing tension exploded in the obsessive scherzo, Storgårds partnering Frang at every abrupt turn. Particularly jaw-dropping was the passage where the solo violin became entangled with two intertwined piccolos — Mary Kay Fink and Saeran St. Christopher — while Yasuhito Sugiyama’s tuba climbed up from the depths.
Like much of the concerto, that passage is as visionary as anything in Britten’s much more famous pieces, and Frang’s ferocious commitment and big, flawless tone made it compelling. The cadenza demonstrated her demonic technique, but by the end of the mournful finale, she brought a lump to the throat with a moving sense of vulnerability. As the harmony wobbled between major and minor, Frang ever so slightly bent her pitches to emphasize the closing’s breathtaking instability. The performance rightly received a standing ovation from the large crowd. One hopes to hear more of both Frang and this concerto in the future.
While remaining within the traditional framework, Storgårds charted an independent course through Schumann’s joyful Spring Symphony. The opening was grandly rhetorical, especially with a full complement of strings in the Blossom Pavilion’s generous acoustic. But Storgårds accelerated into a brisk tempo for the main body of the movement, dovetailing phrase endings to keep Schumann’s textures from getting congested.
It was not, however, a performance of exaggerated contrasts. The emphasis in the slow movement was on the singing string lines, with Storgårds even putting down his baton and conducting with his hands to get a softer, more moulded sound. The tempo was flowing but spacious enough to still fall under the composer’s heading of ‘Larghetto.’ The scherzo was playful without pushing tempos to the brink. The finale was quite relaxed, leaving ample room to speed up in the coda, providing a rousing ending. Frank Rosenwein and Joshua Smith had outstanding solo moments on oboe and flute, respectively, joining the Cleveland strings in bringing to life Schumann’s almost vocal lyricism.
Mark Sebastian Jordan