The Israel Philharmonic on tour brings visceral Prokofiev to Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Prokofiev: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra / Lahav Shani (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 12.11.2022. (MSJ)

Lahav Shani conducts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra © Luis Luque

Prokofiev – Symphony No.1 in D major, ‘Classical’; Romeo and Juliet (selections); Symphony No.5 in B-flat major

I don’t want to be that guy. That guy who complains about a visiting ensemble because it is not his usual band. And there is no doubt that my encounter with Lahav Shani and the Israel Philharmonic playing Prokofiev was about as different as can be from the recent explorations of the composer which Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra have been doing. But I will endeavor to remind myself that a change of pace can be good, to a point.

Lahav Shani was named music director of the Israel Philharmonic after the retirement of Zubin Mehta in 2019. The original plan for Shani’s first season (2020-2021) was to undertake a world tour with the orchestra as a way to introduce the new partnership globally. Of course, the Covid pandemic laid waste to everyone’s plans for a couple of years, so this is, belatedly, that tour of introduction.

Shani is surely one to watch. He conducted the entire concert from memory, without a baton, drawing a visceral and powerful sound from the Israel Philharmonic. Unusually, for a tour, the orchestra and conductor were supremely well-rested, having experienced an unexpected hiatus for a couple of days after their Florida appearances were canceled due to Hurricane Nicole. Fresh and eager to show their mettle, the ensemble played aggressively.

The concert opened with presentations of both the US and Israeli national anthems, followed by an outstanding performance of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony. Shani hit that perfect tempo in the first movement, which balances perky forward movement with unhurried poise. The orchestra sounds revitalized under Shani, with a darker, grainier tone than we usually hear in Cleveland, as well as more emphatic percussion. The slow movement flowed elegantly, with good attention to rhythmic detail. The famous gavotte of the third movement was delightful, for Shani is one of the few conductors who actually pays attention to Prokofiev’s instruction to make the return of the gavotte after the trio slower than its first go-round. Shani savored the wit of Prokofiev’s writing, introducing a few coy hesitations in the tempo, and the orchestra kept to him like glue. The finale flew like the wind at a tempo that precludes absolute clarity in some of the woodwind chatter, but I loved it anyway.

The full orchestra, which had been heard in the anthems, returned for an extended suite of excerpts from the Romeo and Juliet ballet. Despite his beginning as a pianist, Prokofiev really found himself as a composer of ballet music. His symphonies are all quite balletic in feel, so it made sense that Shani grouped these Romeo and Juliet selections as a quasi-symphony: ‘Montagues and Capulets’ (with its baleful introduction) served as an opening fast movement, ‘Dance’ and ‘Masks’ were effectively a two-part scherzo. The balcony and parting scenes made for an extended slow movement, with the ‘Death of Tybalt’ as the dramatic finale. It made for a hefty concert, with heavy demands on the brass who played full tilt with a big, rich sound that occasionally drowned out the melodic material in the opening movement of the suite. Visceral excitement was everywhere, from explosive percussion to urgently lyrical strings.

It was interesting to note, too, how the IPO’s deployment on stage was different from the Cleveland Orchestra’s seating chart. Where Cleveland typically deploys the strings, left to right, first violins, second violins, cellos, violas, with double basses far right, the Israeli ensemble was first violins, cellos, violas, second violins, with the double basses far left. The tuba was in approximately the same far right position as Cleveland’s, but with the basses on the other side of the stage, it gave their bass lines a wide impact, which worked well for Prokofiev.

The sheer volume of the orchestra’s attack became wearing in Prokofiev’s Fifth. Here they made a direct comparison with Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders, who gave a fleet, focused performance of the piece just last year. Shani’s approach was much broader in tempo and louder in volume. I appreciate the occasional use of vigorous brass and percussion, especially since Welser-Möst almost invariably restrains them. But, as concert halls go, the Mandel Hall in Severance Music Center is smallish and intimate. In essence, it is the meta-instrument that the Cleveland Orchestra plays so well, particularly in Welser-Möst’s never-ending search for fifty shades of pianissimo. Filled to the brim with roaring brass and crashing percussion over and over again, the hall gets harsh.

As impressive as the IPO’s visceral display was, by the climax of the third movement, my ears were beginning to feel fatigued. That movement had opened with a near indifference to the quiet volume level called for, not helping the general impression that this was a performance that went from climax to climax, searching for noisy thrills. By contrast, Welser-Möst had kept power in reserve until that moment where the third movement peaks, finally unleashing the full power of his percussion. The contrast made it terrifying, as opposed to just being loud.

The finale was effective, and the concert was brought to a delightful close with an encore, Prokofiev’s March Op.99. It is such a fun piece, I am amazed it doesn’t show up as an encore more often. The concert was received with numerous ovations from an appreciative audience, testifying to the revitalization of the IPO under Shani’s assured leadership. Shani has tremendous talent and confidence, and the kind of technique that communicates efficiently. I think great things are stirring with this partnership, which has enormous potential as the conductor matures and searches for depths instead of decibels.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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