Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra compel with music in troubling times

United StatesUnited States Adès, Walton, Sibelius: Peter Otto (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 10.3.2022. (MSJ)

Peter Otto with Franz Welser-Most and the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

AdèsThe Exterminating Angel Symphony
Walton – Violin Concerto
Sibelius – Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, Op.82

Dedicating this concert to the people of Ukraine and Northeastern Ohio’s Ukrainian community, the Cleveland Orchestra bathed the outside of Severance Music Center in blue and yellow light. Orchestra president André Gremillet made the dedication in the program with a note that pointed out how these three pieces all ‘point to a world on the brink’. The performances which followed did not shy away from that brink.

It is well known that American audiences are fond of giving standing ovations at the end of concerts. But this might be the first time I have seen an audience go standing for all three works on a single program, and deservedly so. It was all the more impressive considering that instead of featuring a glitzy guest conductor and soloist, this concert featured music director Franz Welser-Möst, in his twentieth season at the Cleveland Orchestra, and the ensemble’s first associate concertmaster, Peter Otto, an increasingly impressive figure in the orchestra.

International glamour was present in the form of the US premiere of British composer Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony, with the composer present to receive an ovation that mixed enthusiasm with shock. As I wrote in my review of the Cleveland Orchestra’s premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s Stromab in 2018, horror is a valid, underutilized genre in modern classical music. After all, being scared out of one’s wits is a powerful human experience much used in movies, and there is no reason it shouldn’t have a musical equivalent. Part of that dearth of horror in classical music, though, comes from the angst of much twentieth-century serialism, an aesthetic stance drenched in darkness already. But less rigorously anti-tonal music can allow the range of colors necessary for invoking true horror.

And The Exterminating Angel Symphony does so with a vengeance. If Stromab was subtle psychological terror, this new work is considerably closer to a slasher film. It is based on passages from Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel (based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film of the same name) which portrays a social gathering from which the socialites will never be able to escape. The twenty-minute symphony packs a hell of a punch.

The first movement, ‘Entrances’, accompanies the characters to an after-show party, but it is angular and jerky instead of festive, suggesting that the guests are puppets under the control of forces beyond themselves. Buñuel’s surrealism is evoked by the ritualistic reentrance of the characters, after they have already arrived. Just when the puppet-like angularity nears the point of aggravation, the pattern starts devolving through the strings, sinking lower and lower, becoming ever more harmonically queasy.

But for anyone who thought that would lead to a break in the tension, they were rudely awakened by the second movement, a demonic march. It is an ostinato driven by two snare drums and blaring brass, a sort of cross between Boléro and Mars, the Bringer of War but with much bloodier vitriol than either. It was a rare example of Welser-Möst letting the orchestra roar uninhibited, and it was terrifying. The third movement, ‘Berceuse’, was a broken lullaby, twisted in its tenderness, followed by a finale, ‘Waltzes’, that knitted together a number of the waltz sequences from the original opera and sent them on a careening danse macabre. The performance was blistering and, after a stunned pause, the piece was received with cheers and a standing ovation. The composer came to the stage to take a bow and thank everyone involved.

Thomas Adès takes a bow after The Exterminating Angel Symphony © Roger Mastroianni

It was beautiful to see the Cleveland Orchestra renew its long-standing association with the music of Sir William Walton. His Violin Concerto was premiered in Cleveland in 1939 with Jascha Heifetz, the work’s dedicatee, as soloist and the orchestra conducted by Artur Rodziński. Since then, particularly during the tenure of George Szell, the music of Walton was regularly performed and recorded, Walton being one of the few modern composers for whom Szell had a deep affinity. However, Walton’s Violin Concerto hadn’t been heard in Cleveland in more than thirty years and was making a welcome return.

Instead of featuring a jet-setting soloist, the performance was in the hands of the orchestra’s first associate concertmaster, Peter Otto, and he played it like it was written for him. Otto has been in a provisional position as the orchestra’s leader since the firing of former concertmaster William Preucil, who had led the orchestra boldly and aggressively for some twenty years. It would be gratifying to see the orchestra try a different kind of leadership and appoint Otto to the official position of concertmaster, which he has been filling in his own gentler and more subtle manner for quite some time. And those are qualities that he brought to the fore in the Walton concerto. There is something glamorous and a bit swoony about this music despite its many quiet moments. That gleam perfectly evokes the era when it was written, and Otto was able to embody the glamorous side, playing the difficult parts with absolute assurance while at the same time diving into the tender, introspective moments fearlessly. Welser-Möst and the orchestra were with him every step of the way, and the performance received the second standing ovation of the evening.

The third piece on this demanding program was the Fifth Symphony of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It is rewarding to see the Cleveland orchestra’s music director moving into areas of repertory that he had not greatly explored in the past. At an age when other music directors slowly but surely start paring down their repertory to just a handful of trusty favorites, Welser-Möst is going in the opposite direction, expanding his explorations. It is a wonderful thing, and his discoveries and broadened knowledge serve to inform all the other work he does as well. He kept the symphony flowing and focused, assuring that the tempo relationships – which are critical here – were kept logical and functional, while at the same time encouraging the players to deliver the music with tremendous warmth. It was remarkable to hear the brass soar in the final movement, considering the workout they had already had earlier in the evening.

The Cleveland Orchestra is at the height of its considerable power right now and shows no sign of stopping. Impressive too is that Franz Welser-Möst has grown so much as conductor these last twenty years, he can now invite the finest guest conductors without fear of being shown up. With this concert, he delivered possibly the finest of the season thus far, and that’s really saying something with regard to an ensemble that has been playing music from the depths of their souls.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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