Potent Brahms in Sayaka Shoji’s Cleveland Orchestra debut

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival [4]: Sayaka Shoji (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Jahja Ling (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 22.8.2021. (MSJ)

Violinist Sayaka Shoji and conductor Jahja Ling © Roger Mastroianni

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major Op.77; Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90

As a frequent stop in the major leagues of world ensembles, the Cleveland Orchestra tends to see most rising stars early in their careers. Somehow Sayaka Shoji fell between the cracks, and thus we found her making her Cleveland debut this week at the Blossom Music at the age of 38. Lucky us: the wait was worth it, for what we met in Shoji’s performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto was not merely technical mastery but a burning need to communicate.

Three years ago, Sergey Khachatryan gave a rendition of the Brahms that combined intensity with introspection. While Shoji can and does goes inward, her Brahms speaks with great urgency, even though the tempos were unhurried. It’s an interesting contrast: Khachatryan played with a bigger sound yet came across as introspective. Shoji, playing a sweetly singing Stradivarius violin, nonetheless felt very close and present in the way she dug into the work’s constantly changing atmospheres. The shadowy passage in the first movement that precedes the violin’s commanding outburst of chords can be played with great reserve, but Shoji quietly pushed her accents, fueling the fury to come. Conductor Jahja Ling matched her mood with vigorous orchestral support.

Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein launched the Adagio with an aching warmth, matching Shoji’s ardent approach perfectly. The playing honored the beauty of the movement but never let it sag shapelessly. Instead, it had a sense of forward-moving storytelling, very welcome in such a long and complex concerto. The finale had a high sense of adventure, from mischief to passing shadows. Shoji almost crouched as she leaned into the coda of the movement, digging into the closing boisterousness. Her triumphant smile during the final pages seemed to show she knew full well that she had just laid claim to one of the towering peaks of the repertory in one of the most memorable Cleveland debuts in years. More, please.

The very first time I ever heard the Cleveland Orchestra in concert was on a high school trip to a Friday matinee at Severance Hall in 1985, and Jahja Ling was the conductor. At that point, if I recall correctly, he was in his first season on the conducting staff, and that was to flourish into a twenty-year run. He has returned annually since then and is a beloved figure in Cleveland, one who consistently delivers fine concerts without any pretentions of grandeur. And so it was with Brahms’ Third Symphony, a tricky work to lead. In its last Cleveland outing, two years ago, the work seemed to utterly befuddle Alan Gilbert – usually a solid conductor – and that performance sagged badly, misguided by an overlay of autumnal regret.

Ling had the bright idea of looking at Brahms’ score instead of looking at a picture of Brahms with his long gray beard and sad eyes. The score actually calls for vitality in the outer movements, more than it usually receives in performances. Ling gave it a fair amount of momentum (though it could have handled more), easing into transitions with quiet assurance. This balancing of energy and shadow gave the piece the effect of sunlight constantly dappled by passing clouds, the ideal feel for this great but elusive music.

Ling’s deft shift between flowing melody and mysteriously still chords made the slow movement unfold in a single breath, the melancholy third movement singing lushly after it. Principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlag’s solo on the movement’s poignant melody was a highlight, the notes hanging in the air over the unsettling ripples of the strings. The finale was arguably slightly underpowered, considering the tension generated in the first three movements, but it’s not Ling’s way to overload a piece, and it was fine within the context of a colorful yet highly nuanced performance.

Reflecting his connection with these players, Ling took time during the curtain call to single out retiring violinist Mark Dumm for a bow, along with the various soloists, as well as a bow for each section. After 37 years, Jahja Ling has become a Cleveland Orchestra institution, quietly contributing to its excellence and always rapturously welcomed back.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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