Franz Welser-Möst illuminates rare repertory in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Various: Tony F. Sias (speaker), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 21.10.2021. (MSJ)

Franz Welser-Most conducting the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

Josef StraussHeldengedichte Op.87
George Walker – Sinfonia No.5, ‘Visions’
Korngold – Symphony in F# major Op.40

The second concert of the new Cleveland Orchestra season brought intriguing explorations of rare repertory: all three pieces were being performed here for the first time. Also of interest was the selection and placement of the works themselves, which made for a sort of meta-program.

At first glance, the opener seemed quite unlikely: a rarely heard waltz by Josef Strauss titled Heldengedichte. The ‘heroic poem’ was created for performance at a ceremony in Vienna unveiling a statue honoring Archduke Karl, an opponent of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. As a work of public art, it is mostly the typical unfurling of Viennese waltzes that one would expect from a member of the Strauss family. But there is always a strain of melancholy buried deep in the sweetness of such waltzes, and that strain is more pronounced in Josef’s music. When you add in the factor that Archduke Karl wasn’t really all that much of a hero – he defeated Napoleon once on the battlefield but then lost to him a month later – the piece takes on a brittle sheen only to be answered much later in the concert. Unsurprisingly, this orchestra playing Viennese waltzes under its Austrian conductor is always the pinnacle of style and charm.

The immediate effect of the Strauss piece, though, was to emphasize the uncompromising vision of George Walker’s Sinfonia No.5, finished not long before his death in 2018. Welser-Möst began an exploration of the Pulitzer Prize-winning African American composer’s music last year with a performance of Antifonys, in a series of concerts streamed during the pandemic; he will continue it later this year with Lilacs and the Sinfonia No.4.

Walker was an intellectual composer, and he simply had no interest in writing music that would make for easy listening. Instead, he packed so much into this 20-minute symphony that it feels much longer. Gestural and intense, an additional layer is added by the presence of a speaker reciting texts supplied by the composer himself. The words were read by Tony F. Sias, President, CEO and frequent performer, producer and director at Karamu House, the oldest Black producing theater in the United States. His dramatic declamation of the words suited their fragmentary nature: it’s not a narration, as such, for no story through-line is present, nor does the narrator speak often. Rather, the words reference some of the thoughts churning in Walker’s mind as he wrote, including love, dreaming, the sea, the Black experience in America and the devastating violence of the Charleston church shooting in 2015.

Tony F. Sias, Franz Welser-Most & the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

One text in particular is emblematic of the entire work: ‘A lighthouse beams a stream of light that parts the misty shroud of starless nights’. The composer’s mind is the light here, trying to illuminate the world around it but also revealing dark and bleak scenes from both the past and present. The music is stern and urgent, every gesture loaded with meaning, every melodic shape gruff and pointed. The blend of musical vocabulary drawn from tradition with a spiky modernism paints a vision of the edifice of Western European classical music crumbling and fragmenting before our ears. Or is it the very fabric of American society? The piece raises more questions than it answers, and Sias, Welser-Möst and the orchestra threw themselves into it with compelling commitment. With the pending performances, dare one hope for the first recording of a full cycle of Walker’s symphonies to come from Cleveland over the next few years? It is important music that must be heard.

Another important piece is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp, making a belated debut in Cleveland 67 years after its premiere flopped in Vienna in 1954. The reasons for the failure of a new work to impress its audience can be many, and in 1954 the struggling performance was certainly part of it. But far more than that was Korngold’s almost staggering naivety. Once the darling child genius of Vienna, the Jewish Korngold had fled Europe upon the rise of the Nazis. He found a new career in the United States, writing scores for Hollywood films. Unfortunately, film music was looked at with suspicion by the classical music establishment in those days. After his film career wound down, Korngold was eager to reestablish himself in the concert world, and that was a tall order. First of all, the boy genius of post-romanticism, who had been hailed as a genius by no less than Mahler, had brought that lush, glamorous style to Hollywood and implanted his musical DNA into the American psyche. His later successors such as Elmer Bernstein, Miklos Rosza and John Williams would be unthinkable without Korngold’s lead. America’s big screen dream begins with Korngold, and he’s still present in the essence of soundtracks today.

Meanwhile, the classical music establishment had gone in a totally different direction, emphasizing the upending of lush tonal traditions. Post-World War II concert music was an alien landscape to Korngold, who somehow thought that he could step in and reclaim the mantle of genius. Moreover, he aimed to do so with a sprawling symphony that sounds like the depressed love child of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. And, to top it all, the work celebrates the triumph of the defeat of the Nazis by apparently quoting the American fighting song ‘Over There’. The question is why did Korngold ever think a Viennese audience would warm to such a piece?

Luckily for Korngold, and for us, a reevaluation of his music began in the 1970s, and Welser-Möst added substantially to it with a fine recording of this symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1995. Hearing it live is even better. It is a troubled work, with Korngold at least trying to make his music more aggressive and modernistic in the first movement until yearning lyricism begins to peek through. The scherzo is unpredictable and arguably a little overlong, but it certainly gets across the desperation of Korngold’s nervous energy. The bleak slow movement follows with towering, chilling climaxes. The finale aims to present itself as a positive conclusion, but its lyrical asides show the composer still longing for everything he lost.

Welser-Möst knows this music thoroughly, and the orchestra responded with power and character. Numerous key solos were heard, including extensive ones by principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf and principal flute Joshua Smith. One couldn’t ask for better advocacy.

This glowering beast of a romantic symphony threw the earlier Josef Strauss waltz into fascinating context: the long-gone world of the Austrian Empire had boosted a pseudo-hero with gleaming music undercut by an unstable melancholy. That musical comfort food was blown away by the modernism represented by George Walker, though he was a late flowering of it. By the end of his life, however, Walker was disconsolate too, watching the rise of hatred and violence in the world. The Korngold felt like a lament for all these losses and more, as we in the audience sat wrapped in masks, trying to get on with life despite all we’ve lost.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Leave a Comment