Robertson and Tao work wonders at Cleveland’s Blossom Festival

United StatesUnited States Blossom Festival 2023 [1]: Conrad Tao (piano), Students of the Kent Blossom Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra / David Robertson (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 5.8.2023. (MSJ)

Conrad Tao © Brantley Gutierrez

Sarah Kirkland SniderSomething for the Dark
John AdamsCentury Rolls
Sibelius – Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.36

Some programs show an obvious thread on paper. But it is a delight when a program’s threads look strange on paper, only to emerge once you hear the works in performance. That is exactly what was achieved with this brilliant Blossom Festival performance by the Cleveland Orchestra. On paper, a modern American piano concerto and a brooding Nordic symphony might seem remote from each other, but conductor David Robertson had the keystone to link them.

The key was Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2014 Something for the Dark, a mysterious and moody ten-minute opener that combined some modern, modal minimalism relatable to Adams with cinematic gestures and harmonies that threw back to Sibelius. The piece started with warmth, but there was mystery too. Snider quickly established her long game, harmonically spinning out passages, forcing a sense of longing before any phrase resolves. As the piece went on, it grew darker, the handsome surfaces becoming more crinkled and troubled, building up tension that erupted at its climax in sonorous cracks of timpani and snare drum.

True to its harmonic style, it did not so much resolve as dissolve at the end, but the sense of a turning point had been made. Robertson was in assured control, and the orchestra played magnificently, the reverberant acoustics of the Blossom pavilion contributing to the sense of atmosphere. Not only was Snider, who was in attendance, received warmly by the audience, she was given a second ovation by the portion of the crowd that spotted her heading back to her seat afterwards, an auspicious welcome to a composer making her Cleveland Orchestra debut.

Sarah Kirkland Snider © Willy Somma

John Adams’s Century Rolls was premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1997 under Christoph von Dohnányi with Emanuel Ax as soloist. They subsequently recorded it, and I bought that CD and listened to it a number of times over the years. The work didn’t quite make it into my favorites by this modern master, but that might change after the performance I heard here. Adams may have written the demanding piano part with Ax in mind, but perhaps somewhere in his creative soul, he was writing it for Conrad Tao, still a child at the time it was composed. Tao has said that he grew up listening to the Ax recording, and thus has a long-standing relationship with the music. After hearing him perform it, I would have to say he doesn’t just have a relationship with Century Rolls, he pretty much owns it.

The piece, at least in part inspired by the idea of player-piano rolls, requires enormous kinetic energy, and Tao is an unstoppable machine, whether riffing on the rolls of the first movement, hanging suspended in the trance of the gymnopédie-style slow movement or finding just the right cosmic swing for the ‘Hail Bop’ finale. Robertson and the orchestra were with Tao every step of the way, including a gorgeous oboe solo from Frank Rosenwein. For an encore, Tao didn’t relax: he played his transcription of Art Tatum’s rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, a breathtaking treat. Tao is a formidable force of nature, and it will be interesting if we get a chance to hear some of his original compositions in Cleveland.

With so much fine music-making, one might have expected the Sibelius after intermission to be anticlimactic, but nothing could be further from the truth. It seemed like the longer and more demanding the music, the more energized David Robertson became. With his known flair for modern music, one might expect he would be at a loss with early Sibelius at his most expansive, but Robertson pitched into it with total commitment, savoring details while keeping an eye on the extended structures of the movements. Afendi Yusuf, Cleveland’s principal clarinet, is going to force me to invest in a thesaurus to find new words to capture his ethereal yet pulsingly-alive playing of the opening solo, and its later callbacks.

The rest of the orchestra was in top form, leaning into climaxes passionately while keeping textures bracingly clear, including the all-important timpani motto in the scherzo. Robertson shrewdly distinguished between a crisp snap for his main tempo in the finale, and a glacial freeze at the tragic conclusion. It was a masterful performance, Robertson delivering true leadership without the grandstanding and hair-flapping of so many of today’s young conductors. I especially appreciated his maneuver during his return to the stage at the ovation, where he waded into the orchestra to congratulate key players, then deftly moved aside as he gestured for them all to stand, disappearing behind them to make sure the ovation was directed at the people who made the sounds.

Robertson also gave special attention to Peter Otto, the first associate concertmaster, who is soon leaving to become concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony. Otto served as interim leader of the orchestra for multiple seasons before David Radzynski was named concertmaster. The audience seemed very aware of this news and made a special effort to cheer for Otto, thanking him for his service, as did his colleagues on stage.

The concert was preceded by a set from the Kent Blossom Chamber Orchestra, a student orchestra program that has been restarting after the long Covid hiatus. Rebuilding the program is still underway, but the current students overcame a few ragged entrances and moments of shaky intonation, with conductor Daniel Reith leading them through the overture to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus, Fauré’s ‘Pavane’ and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.

The Beethoven was crisp, the Fauré flowing but not so fast as to preclude the right melancholy. The Prokofiev is a demanding piece and was a good workout for the students. It must be said, though, that the Blossom acoustic is not terribly friendly to an intricate piece like the Classical Symphony, with much detail lost in reverberance. That acoustic was perfect, however, for the Sibelius, and the student players returned for the tremendous opportunity to play alongside Cleveland Orchestra members, adding sheer heft to the orchestra’s sound.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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