Restraint over risk in Rafael Payare’s Cleveland debut

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival [2] – From the New World: Stefan Jackiw (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Rafael Payare (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 25.7.2021. (MSJ)

Rafael Payare conducts the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63

Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E Minor, Op.95, ‘From the New World’

Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare made his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in this Blossom Music Festival summer concert. He is a striking figure, tall and slim, moving balletically on the podium. There was no question that he knows how Dvořák’s New World Symphony goes. Whether he knows or cares why was debatable.

Payare happily avoided the mannerisms of tradition, not using the slow-downs and accelerations often imposed on the score. But he also declined to drive the work’s seething undercurrents. It has often been discussed that Dvořák suffered from homesickness when he moved from Europe to the US to run a music conservatory in New York City. What is less known is that a significant part of Dvořák’s distress was romantic. Rejected years before by the love of his life, the composer married the woman’s sister instead. By so doing, he was able to at least keep socially close to his true love. Moving to America tore him away from her, and it can be felt in this music. Yes, there is homesickness, and there is a reaction to the wild dynamism of the United States. But, above all, there is personal turmoil.

Payare stayed mostly on the surface of the work, guiding the orchestra with outsized gestures that didn’t always seem connected with what the orchestra was doing. At one point during the first movement, the conductor started bearing down with greater vigor, and the orchestra responded. Then he returned to his elegant gestures and the intensity dissipated. There were some places where relatively simple entrances – such as the brass chorale at the end of the Largo – were ragged because the conductor didn’t prepare the players with a clear upbeat. And it must have been a challenge for them to follow Payare in the rhythmically intricate scherzo where he built complex pyramids of baton gestures instead of making a clear, simple beat.

All this is not to say the performance was bad. It wasn’t. Payare knew the contours of the work well, and he didn’t try to browbeat the orchestra with an overemphasis on details. But they do respond to being challenged. For a moment in the first movement, it felt like the performance was about to kick up to a higher level, but then Payare reined it in, and restraint ruled thereafter. Dvořák’s New World can take more risks than this performance dared to, which only means that it was a satisfying rendition, as opposed to the blazing experience it can be.

The orchestra was in fine voice, with an outstandingly poignant English horn solo in the Largo by Robert Walters, and wondrous solos by Jessica Sindell on flute, Afendi Yusuf on clarinet and Nathaniel Silberschlag on horn.

The fine violinist Stefan Jackiw made a welcome return in the first half of the concert with Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Where many performances lean either toward lyricism or display, Jackiw balanced the two effectively, singing with a sweet tone in the first two movements, then stepping up technically assured fireworks for the final movement. Jackiw is a first-rate player and one looks forward to hearing him in a wide range of repertory to see how he applies his thoughtful skills. Payare and the orchestra supported and interacted with the soloist effectively.

Last but not least, it might be worth noting that while the video screens installed by the stage sides are a welcome way to get a closer look at soloists, players and conductors, they could be even more effective if the camera cues matched the entrances of soloists and sections instead of lagging a few seconds behind.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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