A Guest Conductor Brings Unusual Alacrity to Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky: Javier Perianes (piano) Cleveland Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 28.2.2019. (MSJ)

François-Xavier Roth (c) Holger Talinski

Debussy – ‘Rêve’ from Première Suite d’Orchestre (reconstructed/orchestrated by Philippe Manoury)

Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major

StravinskyPétrouchka (1947 revision)

François-Xavier Roth does not cut a glamorous figure on the podium. He fusses with his tie while entering the stage, but once the music starts, one gets the sense nothing could be further from his mind than what he looks like. Rather, his head is full of strategies for bringing music to life, which he did with unusual alacrity here, in his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra.

The concert began with a rarity, a movement from young Claude Achille Debussy’s self-titled ‘first’ orchestral suite (1882-1884, though none of his later works was labeled ‘second’), rediscovered in 2008 and premiered in 2012. Three of the movements were found in Debussy’s original orchestration. The third, ‘Rêve’ (‘Dream’), was found only in a version for two pianos, and composer Philippe Manoury undertook the reconstruction of the orchestral version. Granted, Manoury has the advantage of knowing all of Debussy’s later orchestrations, and thus the work relates to the sound-world we know.

But that ecstatic drift is not merely achieved through the instrumentation. It’s in the score’s DNA, making it unquestionably Debussy, and one of his earliest examples. It starts with feathery textures, builds to a sonorous climax underpinned by the brass, and then trails off. Under Roth, the orchestra employed its full coloristic range, with airy textures and deep colors. It is impressive when a conductor can visit and in just a few rehearsals offer a distinctively different sound from the sleek, streamlined gleam favored by music director Franz Welser-Möst. Many can’t do it. Roth did it masterfully.

On this concert, the only big disappointment was the cancellation (due to the illness of soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja) of the Cleveland premiere of Péter Eötvös’s violin concerto Seven: Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts, which one hopes will be rescheduled in the near future. In its place was the much less adventurous Piano Concerto in G by Ravel, in an adept performance by Javier Perianes, who seemed most at home in the brash and witty moments of the outer movements. Though the pianist was beautiful in the slow section, he never sounded entirely at ease, and never quite achieved the spellbound poise I remember Helène Grimaud summoning a number of years back here with conductor David Zinman. Roth plunged far deeper into the details than Zinman, though, bringing out layers usually covered in the orchestral part and giving them a sassy, occasionally breathtaking realization. As an encore, Perianes followed with a shimmering version of Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance.

But fine as the first half was, it was nothing compared to the towering Stravinsky Pétrouchka that Roth unleashed after intermission. Roth provoked the players into ferocious vigor, with bold colors, feisty accents, and vividly etched characterizations. Stravinsky’s tale of a hapless, lovelorn puppet was not its usual glittering showpiece. Instead, Roth remembered that the story is a bitterly sarcastic tragedy. Where the colors of the score are bright, they should be lurid, and they were here. Roth’s podium style is not to flail away, but he clearly communicated a vision that had the orchestra on the edge of their seats, playing with astonishing intensity.

‘The Shrovetide Fair’ was vigorous and restless, but just broad enough in tempo to allow the orchestra room to lift phrases and lean into key passages. Instead of rushing past the rude contrabassoon noises ‘In Pétrouchka’s Room’, Roth paused to let the audience laugh, which is surely what Stravinsky was after. When Pétrouchka was murdered ‘In the Moor’s Room’, the malevolence of the orchestral attack was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. ‘The Shrovetide Fair, Toward Evening’ whirled with dizzying snowflakes before it built up dangerous energy as the crowd scene surged. The dancing bear music curdled the brightness, setting the stage for the appearance of Pétrouchka’s ghost near the end, with its tart dissonance.

The sheer level of personality, allied with glorious sound, made this a standout concert — not only one of the best this season, but of the last few years. Soloist duties run rampant in the Stravinsky — too many to describe here — though one can’t pass without acknowledging the extraordinary contributions of Joshua Smith, the orchestra’s principal flute.

Roth is a real find. With his assiduous diving into the score’s details, there was one miscue near the end where the horns weren’t unified in response to Roth’s gesture, but it was a minor blip, especially in comparison to the overall level of compelling theatricality. It is rare to hear the potential of this orchestra so thoroughly unlocked. Let’s hope Roth will become a regular future visitor. He offers the challenges this orchestra needs in order to rise to its highest level.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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