Cleveland Orchestra returns home and opens its 2021-22 season in top form

United StatesUnited States Various: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 14.10.2021. (MSJ)

Alisa Weilerstein soloes in A New Day © Roger Mastroianni

R. StraussMacbeth Op.23
Joan TowerA New Day
Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in B-flat major Op.100

After twenty months without full-fledged, live concerts in their home hall, the Cleveland Orchestra returned with this marvelous concert. It was a joy to hear them there.

But first, a word about the hall. Some patrons of the orchestra have grumbled because the main performance space has been renamed the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Hall, following a grant from the Mandel Foundation. The building retains the name of its initial benefactor, John L. Severance, as Severance Music Center. To put this in perspective: Severance pledged one million dollars in the late 1920s for the construction of this permanent home for the Cleveland Orchestra, and more than doubled that amount to $2,600,000 to make up for funding shortfalls brought on by the Great Depression. Adjusted for inflation, that gift would be the equivalent of $42,700,000 today.

The Mandel Foundation donated $50,000,000 to the orchestra. Severance was a key supporter in the ensemble’s first century, and now the Mandel Foundation has emerged in an equivalent role for the second century. Some also complained that such naming is just for publicity, as it was for Severance himself. Yes, Severance Hall became a memorial to his wife, but the money had been pledged before her sudden death. And, let’s face it, if it weren’t for the hall, his name would barely be remembered today, no matter how successful a businessman he once was. Thus, the hall name is fair game. I welcome the new name and the generous support which assures the orchestra’s continuance.

And what an orchestra it is. While special-occasion programming can be fun, what was most remarkable about this opening concert of the orchestra’s 103rd season was its sense of getting back to work doing what they do best, bringing life to music both old and new, familiar and unfamiliar. First up was Richard Strauss’s first tone poem, Macbeth, part of music director Franz Welser-Möst’s ongoing exploration of the composer’s works. Shortly before the pandemic hiatus, they performed Aus Italien, an early quasi-programmatic symphony that showed Strauss struggling to find his voice.

In Macbeth, Strauss has found his voice though he has yet to focus it. The work charts the violent course of Shakespeare’s play without going deep into the title character’s mind. What we hear are characteristically Straussian motifs, though his handling of them doesn’t approach the mastery that would soon bloom in such works as Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. Part of the reason is because the composer had not yet refined his skill as an orchestrator, which allows his mature works to ‘pop’ with brilliance. In Macbeth, he was still experimenting with the potential color of a large orchestra.

The work remains rare. In my overgrown collection of tens of thousands of recordings, I only have two of Macbeth, by Antal Dorati and Lorin Maazel (a former music director in Cleveland, though he never led the work here). Dorati seems almost embarrassed by the work’s weaknesses in his recording, and Maazel arguably tries too hard to push the aggressive elements. Welser-Möst’s approach combined high energy and unhesitating commitment with a refined elegance in the score’s lyrical parts, making it a worthwhile exploration of Strauss’s developing chemistry. It was the orchestra’s first performance of the work.

Next, cellist Alisa Weilerstein joined the orchestra to give the Cleveland premiere of a new concerto by American composer Joan Tower. A New Day was co-commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Music Festival. Dedicated to the composer’s husband, Jeff Litfin, the work is personal though not explicitly programmatic.

‘This piece is about him and about us – sort of’, Tower says. Each movement is set in motion by a personal idea but then goes about its business in an abstractly musical way. The first movement is ‘Daybreak’, but the idea of waking up merely sets the alternately lyrical and dramatic music in motion. And it is very much in motion, occasionally pitting the soloist against the ensemble in the traditional manner of a concerto, but more often showing them working together toward a common end. The movement introduces an important gesture in the work, a sudden swooping glissando on the cello that leads up high, as if one has suddenly paused to look up into the sky.

The second movement, ‘Working Out’, is a lively scherzo, followed by the third movement, ‘Mostly Alone’, an intense quasi-cadenza. The finale, ‘Into the Night’, covers many moods and closes quietly with a final look toward the night sky. The piece is arresting and layered, and it needs to be lived with for the listener to discover all its facets. One hopes it will be recorded for commercial release. Weilerstein has clearly lived with it and proved a compelling soloist, engagingly supported by the orchestra and Welser-Möst.

A pause was taken before the second half of the concert began to present the Distinguished Service Award to the orchestra’s principal keyboardist, Joela Jones, who is retiring after a stellar 54-year career with the Cleveland Orchestra. Appointed by George Szell, she has worked closely with conductors ever since, as well as with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus as rehearsal pianist, and as a soloist. One particularly vivid memory is her 1999 presentation of Ernst von Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme, with the composer’s grandson, Christoph von Dohnányi, on the podium. Her mastery will be missed, as it contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth that followed.

Franz Welser-Most conducts Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony © Roger Mastroianni

Prokofiev is another composer whose work Welser-Möst has gradually been exploring. If the conductor’s name has been more often associated with Bruckner, Strauss and Schubert in the past, Prokofiev will surely become associated in the future. I reviewed the orchestra’s TCO label release of the revelatory performance Welser-Möst led of Prokofiev’s Third at MusicWeb International (click here), and I will shortly be reviewing their follow-up release of the Prokofiev Second. I can only hope that this performance of the Fifth will follow, because it was the one I have been waiting for my whole life.

When Prokofiev issued this work in the nervous peace following World War II, he described it as ‘a song of praise of free and happy mankind’. While Prokofiev didn’t engage in as much double-speak as his fellow Soviet-oppressed composer Shostakovich, he must have said that with a very strained, glassy smile. The statement has, frankly, misdirected interpreters for years into underplaying the work. While someone such as the great Leonard Bernstein saw through that, he pushed in a different direction by slowing the work down and trying to make it sound epic in the manner of Mahler. An anecdote demonstrates Prokofiev’s antipathy to Mahler: Prokofiev once lamented to a colleague, ‘All my students have come down with Mahleria’.

Welser-Möst had none of that. His tempos were fleet and focused, which didn’t prevent him and his players from unfolding the score’s layers. Instead of just making noise, he found the lyrical heart of every movement, and then let the violent climaxes emerge from that heartfelt peace, demonstrating just how much trauma is being processed in this music. It was a performance that completely blew away the orchestra’s previous two presentations, both at Blossom Music Center, their summer home. In 2013, Kirill Karabits gave a light-weight rendition of the work (click here), and in 2018 (click here), Vassily Petrenko lost concentration after a good start. The Blossom pavilion worked against Prokofiev’s precisely detailed orchestration on both those occasions, blurring the work’s impact. I knew that the clear warmth of what is now Mandel Hall would prevent that, though Welser-Möst sometimes restrains pieces that might get a little wild.

But that didn’t happen on this occasion. Welser-Möst recognized that this music needs sharp corners and weighty climaxes, and he let the orchestra roar where appropriate. The first movement was particularly effective because it started with such warmth, only to find itself confronted with towering mountains of brass and percussion. The scherzo stung like a wasp, while still full of sly wit. The slow movement was both fragile and icy until the car-crash of a peak with blaring horns forced it to retreat into breathtaking poise. The finale was both a release and a new build-up of energy, the closing pages dangerous in their reckless frivolity. This was a performance for the ages, and I cannot recall ever hearing the orchestra so absolutely on top of their game on opening night.

It was a spectacular launch to Welser-Möst’s twentieth season as music director, a fervently welcomed return to the Cleveland Orchestra’s home after twenty months of pandemic maneuvers and a glowing salute to the newly-named Mandel Hall.

Now, if we could just get something done about the width of the seats in the balcony which were, according to Donald Rosenberg’s history of the Cleveland Orchestra, literally based on measurements of Mrs Severance’s backside. As many of us today are (ahem) not as svelte as Mrs Severance, reconfigured seating would be a great new project!

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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