Cleveland starts the year with lyrical timpani, hilarious Haydn and vital Nielsen

United StatesUnited States Various: Paul Yancich (timpani), Liv Redpath (soprano), Justin Austin (baritone), Cleveland Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 5.1.2023. (MSJ)

Paul Yancich performing James Oliverio’s Legacy Ascendant © Roger Mastroianni

James OliverioLegacy Ascendant: Concerto for timpani and strings
Haydn – Symphony No.90 in C major
Nielsen – Symphony No.3 in D major, ‘Sinfonia espansiva’

Personality was to the fore in the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert of 2023, led by welcome guest conductor Alan Gilbert. It speaks highly of Gilbert’s Nielsen to say that it was fully the equal of the stunning performance led here in 2013 by the great Herbert Blomstedt (review click here) the world’s ranking Nielsen conductor. Gilbert was up to the comparison, bringing if anything even more energy to the careening waltz in the middle of the troubled first movement.

The symphony lived up to its expansive subtitle with Gilbert allowing time at transition points for the musical storytelling to shift. He was aided in this by the spectacular playing of the Cleveland Orchestra, including a rhapsodic oboe solo in the slow movement by Jeffrey Rathbun. In 2013, Blomstedt had placed the wordless vocals that arise in the coda of that movement somewhere offstage, which was evocative. On this occasion, Gilbert kept his singers placed in the orchestra, as members of the ensemble, which worked fine and gave them their moments in the spotlight. Soprano Liv Redpath sang with effortless lyricism, and baritone Justin Austin brought a velvety warmth to his solos. Both singers were luxury casting for these relatively small parts.

Gilbert relished the ambivalence of the third movement, drawing attention to its quirks. He paced the grand finale broadly, yet with a constant sensitivity to Nielsen’s volatility. Part of this composer’s magic is that at one moment he can be delivering a straightforward, pleasant melody, but then just a few notes will turn in an unexpected direction, introducing doubt. Likewise, Nielsen can show deadly fangs in one moment that dissolve into a warm smile the next. Gilbert gets that, and made sure the interplay of sun and shadow was constant.

Alan Gilbert conducting the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

Gilbert also has a knack for Haydn, which he has done here before and will hopefully continue to do in the future. This time, he led the rarely heard Symphony No.90. It was only the second time it has been programmed in Cleveland, surely just because it lacks a memorable nickname. In truth, it is full of Haydn’s ingenious conversational wit. After a stately introduction, the Allegro opens as if in the middle of a thought, which proves a great device for propelling the movement forward. Gilbert opted for a full complement of strings, yet kept textures and vibrato under control to achieve a crisply classical feel.

The slow movement variations brought elegant solos from Rathbun on oboe, Jessica Sindell on flute and Mark Kosower on cello. The minuet was ideally paced, with just the right slackening of tempo for the trio, and the finale took high spirits a step further when Gilbert played up Haydn’s false ending by turning around to stop the audience applause which started up. He took it a step further, though, on a repeat of the second half of the finale by pretending to fall for the false ending himself. Concertmaster David Radzynski played along with the joke, protesting when Gilbert stopped conducting and showing him the score with its additional pages. The audience loved it.

Had these pieces alone been the concert, it would have been satisfying and memorable. But the considerable bonus was the world premiere of a new timpani concerto by James Oliverio, written for the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal timpanist, Paul Yancich. Yancich and Oliverio went to music school together at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and this was the third concerto Oliverio has written for Yancich over the years. The earlier pieces explore more predictable percussive virtuosity, but Legacy Ascendant stakes out unexpected territory: lyricism.

The piece starts and ends softly, with extensive melodic material given to the timpanist who plays seven drums, five of which are equipped with pedals. This allows for a considerable range of pitches, all of which are made use of in Oliverio’s tonal but modernly tart writing. There are a few lively flourishes along the way, but the predominant atmosphere is reflective, even when the outer movements are moving at a fast pace. Yancich specifically asked for a concerto for timpani and strings, and the composer add a harp as well to get an autumnal tone with flecks of color.

Getting the opportunity to listen to Yancich front and center makes it clear how much his reserved, artful touch is the very core of the Cleveland Orchestra sound. Toxic banging is banished when this artist demonstrates that even the most intractable of objects can be coaxed to sing.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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