What a Difference an Interval Can Make to the Cleveland Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn: Peter Otto (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 23.11.2018. (MSJ)

VivaldiThe Four Seasons

Mozart – Chaconne from Idomeneo

Haydn – Symphony No.94 in G major, ‘Surprise’

There is much to unpack in this concert of wildly unequal halves.

I am certain the Cleveland Orchestra wishes to put the firing of concertmaster William Preucil for sexual misconduct well behind them. But the shadow lingers, at least for now, because the scandalous Preucil also happened to be a powerful artistic personality. And that was exactly what was lacking in this performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Preucil had originally been scheduled to both play and lead this concert, with different repertory on the second half. With his departure, the soloist’s role was transferred to first associate concertmaster Peter Otto, and period music expert Nicholas McGegan was brought in to oversee. Yet in the Vivaldi, he largely didn’t. McGegan played harpsichord continuo from a central position and occasionally stood to conduct, but he apparently left tempo choices up to the soloist and seemed to only rarely demand specific details.

The result was superficially pleasant but hardly distinguished. Peter Otto demonstrated an awareness of historically-informed playing techniques, but his colleagues in the orchestra largely did not follow him down that road, defaulting to a very modern plush vibrato far too often. McGegan left the musicians alone except in those moments where he actually conducted, when things became more focused.

Otto’s tempos were mostly safe and comfortable. He only tore into one of the solos daringly, in the Summer concerto, giving a glimpse of the kind of spark that could have ignited the performance if everyone involved brought that level of commitment throughout. But the will didn’t seem to be there. In the slow movement of Spring, the barking dog Vivaldi portrayed with a viola instead politely crooned with vibrato. The dancing finale of the same concerto kept its feet on the floor. Otto rarely embellished his solo lines in the slow movements or during reflective solos. The ‘hunt’ movement from Autumn was laughably stodgy. One couldn’t catch a cold at that tempo, let alone a fox. The foot-stomping and chattering teeth of Winter seemed, at best, viewed from a comfortable armchair indoors.

If one simply reads a few anecdotes about Vivaldi, it would be clear that a safe, comfortable, literal reading of his scores isn’t telling the whole story. Even looking at the extravagant drama of any Italian baroque painting would be sufficient to demonstrate that laid-back Vivaldi isn’t true to the period he worked in. I cannot diagnose from the balcony details of leadership or lack thereof and/or unwillingness of the rank-and-file to follow, but it was not an impressive showing.

What a difference an interval can make.

If the problem in the first half was the inability of an early music conductor to draw period authenticity from a modern symphony orchestra, that idea went out the window the moment McGegan gave the downbeat for the quasi-baroque Chaconne from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo. The performance was crisp, brisk, and lithe. It was particularly interesting to hear it in this context, considering that the local period instrument ensemble, Apollo’s Fire, just played this rarity a month ago with Jeannette Sorrell, a concert which I also reviewed (click here). Despite their background in later classics, the Cleveland Orchestra was as effective as their specialist neighbors. McGegan, now standing on a podium, was here very involved with the shaping of phrases and injection of energy, and it made a great difference.

Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony, although well known, hasn’t appeared as often here as one might think. Indeed, the program book cited only five previous sets of performances in the orchestra’s one-hundred-year history. Though George Szell was esteemed for his Haydn recordings, he actually only programmed the Symphony No.94 twice during his tenure, and it has only appeared sporadically since then. It would be hard to imagine any of those besting McGegan’s, which struck a perfect balance between wit and incisiveness, drawing out the passing shadows that give this lucid and vibrant music its depth.

The first movement was a small universe of skillfully-balanced contrasts, underpinned by timpani with wooden sticks, reflecting the sort of drumsticks used in the classical period (as did the entire second half). The surprise in the slow movement was delivered with neither restraint nor exaggeration. The minuet danced at Haydn’s proscribed tempo of Allegro molto, very fast, demonstrating the change from minuet to scherzo that was already happening in symphonic composition, even before Beethoven. The finale was witty and quick, vital and joyous.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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