Kuchar and the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra are electrifying in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Various: Antonio Pompa-Baldi, Emanuela Friscioni (piano), Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine / Theodore Kuchar and Carl Topilow (conductors). Cuyahoga Community College Metropolitan Campus Auditorium, Cleveland, 23.2.2023. (MSJ)

Theodore Kuchar conducts the Lviv NPO of Ukraine with Michailo Sosnovsky on flute © Victoria Stanbridge

Yevhen Stankovych – Chamber Symphony No.3 for Flute and Strings
BrahmsTragic Overture (cond. Topilow)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.10 in E-flat major for 2 Pianos, K.365
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95, ‘From the New World’

During his closing remarks, conductor Theodore Kuchar asked if anyone could tell him the current time. After someone called out the hour, Kuchar noted that – adjusting for time zones – it was almost exactly one year to the moment after air raid sirens sounded in Lviv, announcing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To remind people that the war is still ongoing and to thank United States citizens for their support, the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine has undertaken a 40-city US tour. This Cleveland concert was the thirty-fourth of the series.

And what a concert it was. Under even normal conditions, Kuchar is a compelling conductor, but with the important sense of mission on this occasion, one felt that the ensemble would storm the Bastille if their principal conductor so desired. There may be more refined ensembles, but the Lviv NPO plays with a kind of fire that is rare, while still running their rivals a close race for polish. They have been around in one form or another since 1902, but Kuchar has brought them to a world-class level.

Of course, it was essential for such a concert to include a work by a Ukrainian composer, but Yevhen Stankovych’s Chamber Symphony No.3 was no mere token representation. Rather, it is a searing masterpiece by a living composer that was, by some distance, the most substantial work on the program, Brahms and Dvořák notwithstanding. The 1985 piece is scored for flute and strings, with the focal flute line taken here by the orchestra’s principal, Michailo Sosnovsky. It opens with the quiet insistence of repeated notes and stepwise movements but moves from that spare material to climaxes both harrowing and radiant in three interconnected movements. Sosnovsky was both brilliant and searching in his playing of the demanding solo part and the strings dug in with arresting intensity under Kuchar’s sure-handed guidance. This is emphatically a composer worth exploring.

The full ensemble took the stage next, with a special guest. Carl Topilow is a towering presence in the Ohio arts scene, having been director of the orchestra program at the Cleveland Institute of Music for 37 years and founder/director of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra for 25 years. At CIM, Topilow has regularly brought Kuchar in as a guest lecturer and, for this concert, Kuchar wished to have Topilow step in for a performance of Brahms’s Tragic Overture. It is a piece that is often performed in a reserved, understated way, but Topilow let it earn its dramatic name with a visceral performance that reminded listeners why the piece became famous in the first place.

Next came Antonio Pompa-Baldi and Emanuela Friscioni, both longtime fixtures in the northeast Ohio arts scene. Pompa-Baldi won the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 1999 and teaches at CIM. Friscioni has taught at CIM, but more recently became director of the Cuyahoga Community College’s Creative Arts Academy and founder/director of the Tri-C Piano Series of concerts. In Mozart’s Concerto No.10 for 2 Pianos, they savored the interplay of solo lines, while clarifying the dialogue with their distinctive sounds: Pompa-Baldi played with a subtly staccato touch, while Friscioni’s touch was more meltingly lyrical. Kuchar and the orchestra supported them buoyantly.

Theodore Kuchar and the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine © Victoria Stanbridge

Ending the concert was a masterful performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Boldly drawn and executed, the performance proved classics don’t get tired and worn out, only bland, timid conductors do. Kuchar is a throwback to the days of Rodzinski, Reiner and Szell. He makes strong interpretive choices, then ensures that his ensemble executes them to the letter. He prefers powerful bass lines and clear percussion and can drive a performance thrillingly. But Kuchar also knows where to trust his players and drop back into minimal gestures, giving them room to take ownership of the moment. Best of all, he knows when to go beyond the score and allow room to make a psychological transition.

The second half of the concert started with an amusing moment. After the pianos had been taken offstage during the intermission, the conductor’s podium had been struck as well. Kuchar appeared surprised to find no podium there when he took the stage for the Dvořák, but it hardly mattered. He isn’t enormously tall, but his stage presence is at least seven feet high. He made use of the space by working the entire area in front of the strings, interacting closely with the players – at times his baton ended up between the players and their sheet music. None of them were phased by this up-close proximity. Rather, they tore into their parts with even more intensity, shredding bow hairs in the process. From Markian Maksymiv’s yearning English horn solo to the halting pauses in the final appearance of the main theme of the Largo, the second movement was a standout.

That moment deserves special note. I have heard this piece many, many times, and what usually happens is that when this passage arrives, players ‘emote’ with a big, weepy vibrato as the theme appears to break down, unable to continue. Kuchar had his players restrain the vibrato and, evidently, asked them to feel the music instead of just acting the emotion. The difference was subtle, but it electrified a crucial passage that all too often fails to touch the heart in bland performances.

Granted that the program was partially made up of works for the guest artists, it occurred to me during the Dvořák Scherzo that all the works, as varied as they are, were unified by use of insistent, repeated notes. Thus, the concert ended up having a wide range of styles but was effective musically. The audience – which included many from Cleveland’s large Ukrainian community – erupted with joyous shouts at the end. Across the back of the stage, two flags were unrolled, one a Ukrainian flag and the other combining the flags of the US and Ukraine. An encore based on a traditional Ukrainian song closed the evening after Kuchar’s remarks thanking the US for its support.

As I walked out of the hall, I saw Cleveland’s prominent Terminal Tower in the distance, framed by the surrounding buildings. It was lit up in blue and yellow in honor of the Ukrainian struggle, and the stirring and terrifying music of the Stankovych piece came back into my thoughts.

On this night, music gave witness.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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