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Thursday March 27, 2008

Cleveland Orchestra does Beethoven's 5th

The Cleveland Orchestra once again rolled into town this week for their all-too-brief Miami season. They performed a concert last night in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary, and perform a second program this Friday and Saturday. Last night’s program, a nod to Leonard Bernstein’s historic performances in Israel in 1948, included Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, a Mozart Piano Concerto, and Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes.

The show opened with readings of the US and Israeli national anthems, which musically work very well together, the latter’s sombre slow build a nice counterpoint to the Banner’s usual pomposity. This was followed by a rather lengthy curtain talk by the executive director of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation (at one point, he launched into a list of technologies invented in Israel!).

Originally composed for clarinet, string quartet, and piano, Prokofiev transcribed Overture on Hebrew Themes for orchestra himself, and it does as advertised, running medley-like through Klezmer and other recognizable ideas, toe-tapping one moment, morose and swooping the next.

So, how do you get a piano to the front of the stage in the middle of an orchestra performance? Like this, my friends — you break down as many of the band risers as you need to wheel that puppy out. I’m not sure they needed to bother, actually. Mozart always sounds like Mozart, but the Piano Concerto No. 21 is almost a self-parody, the most Mozarty construct ever, a summation of every fun idea out precocious Austrian buddy ever had. Well played by the 31-year old Shai Wosner, who’s nervous tics complemented the music pretty well. He fidgeted with the height-adjust on his piano stool, made motions as though wiping dust off the keyboard and shaking it onto the floor, and shook his head quickly during the more stirring piano-less passages. A couple of times I caught him sort of shaking his fist at the keyboard before launching into one of his slow phrases. He seemed to take less relish in delivering these than the 32nd note runs and trills, which he handled with commanding smoothness. Don’t let me mislead you, though — Mozart is always a delight to hear, and this was a big, delicious slice of Mozart (who, first and foremost a keyboardist himself, is arguably better represented by this concerto than by, say, one of his symphonies or operas).

But it was all preamble, because after intermission came LvB’s Symphony No. 5, one of the most gripping pieces in western music. It’s on pieces like this, that you’ve heard 100 times before, that you truly begin to appreciate the unparalleled mastery of the Cleveland Orchestra and the rich sound of the Arscht’s concert hall. Sounds and details I’d never noticed before snuck out at every turn, and the whole thing was alive in a way which few things are. Opening with the heavy, stark, almost modernist first movement, the symphony has light moments, but they are few. Mostly it’s dramatic and full-throttle, and fainting and heart attacks do not seem like inappropriate responses. A friend once explained to me that while the string quartet is his favorite sound in terms of timbre and nuance, the appeal of an orchestra is its sheer visceral power, and that power was in full force last night.

Well, you missed it. No worries — you can catch the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend, in a program built around a Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Tickets available for Friday and Saturday, tho only Saturday has some of the cheaper seats left.


Wednesday March 26, 2008

Hey everybody, the Cleveland Orchestra is performing Beethoven’s Fifth, tonight only.


Wednesday January 24, 2007

Cleveland Orchestra at Carnival Center

Carnival Center, Cleveland ORchestra
photo: Roger Mastroianni

For all intents and purposes, this past weekend was the night everyone was waiting for with respect to the Carnival Center’s concert hall — the first performance by by a full-scale, professional orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra did it right, too, performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, paired with Leonard Bernstein’s 1st, to a sold-out audience. We already know that the Cleveland Orchestra is considered the best in the country, so the real question regards the Knight Concert Hall’s acoustics. (Although “Are they so good that a few performances a year make up for not having a local orchestra?” comes to mind.)

So let’s just get it out of the way: the room sounds great. When the music goes lound and fast in the 4th movement of the 9th it was almost overpowering. But where it really shines is on the quiet bits. Bernstein gets all 20th-century-American experimental in the first movement of his symphony, and there are little one and two bar solos for various instruments. Each time, it sounded like the player was sitting in my lap. Your ear adjusts for dynamic levels the same way your eye does going from a darkened theater into bright sunlight, but the Knight hall made everything sound just right.

The hall’s sound-modifying features were in their medium-intimate setting, with the canopy in its lowest position and the sound-doors partially open. I spoke to Gary Hanson, the Cleveland Orchestra’s executive director, who told me that this was the orchestra’s preferred configuration, giving the Knight Concert Hall an intimate sound, not unlike that of their own Severance Hall. The configuration was determined during the orchestra’s tuning visit to Miami last year, and will be used for all Cleveland Orchestra performances at Carnival Center. Other orchestras may choose a different configuration; for example, the New World Symphony actually changed the configuration between pieces during their inaugural performance last year.

Hanson was enthusiastic about the sound. He pointed out that like any concert hall, the sound is a little more reverberant in the top balconies and a little more present on the floor, but it is generally very consistent, which is in fact one of the marks of a great hall. The Cleveland Orchestra is very happy in the Knight Concert Hall.

So on to the show. The performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was spectacular, comparing very favorably with my London Symphony Orchestra recording, especially in the third movement, which sounded the most modern. The biggest difference I noticed was in the opening; whereas on my recording the first movement opens with a bang, on Saturday it built dramatically from a quiet foundation. This performance featured 180 singers from the U/M Frost Chorale and the Master Chorale of South Florida. They sat motionless behind the orchestra for the first three movements, and only came in for the grand fourth movement (the longest), which goes full-tilt almost from beginning to end. Wow. Lawrence Johnson checked the Friday show out for the Herald, and he was also thrilled. (By the way, here is an interesting radio interview with conductor Franz Welser-Möst about his views of Beethoven’s 9th.)

What do you pair the most famous symphony in history with? Welser-Möst chose Leonard Bernstein’s 1st symphony, which seems odd only at first blush. Bernstein’s three movements are very different from each other; one is probing and experimental in a early-20th century sort of way (quirky two-bar solos! woodblock!), the second is fast and dramatic, and the third is mournful, and featured Kelly O’Connor’s vocal (which was wonderful, but honestly I couldn’t even tell what language she was singing, and it was English); this was the perfect thing to wake up the ears.

And so we have one of the best orchestras in the world in town for a few weeks every year. And while some former members of the defunct Florida Philharmonic feel that this will make it more difficult to re-form a local orchestra, as an audience all we can do is enjoy it. Apropos of that, extra seats have just been released (on the choral riser! should be a great place to sit) for the performances this weekend (Mahler!), and tickets are also available for the March performances (Tchaikovsky!).

I wouldn’t let the high-art thing intimidate me, by the way. Dress nice and bring your active-listening ears and you’ll be fine. If you can avoid wearing a loud jangly bracelet and moving around all night, you’ll be doing better then the woman sitting across the aisle from me (what was she thinking?). There is nothing quite like being in this particular room listening to this particular band; it’s something everyone should do.

See also: More information about the Knight Concert Hall at my Carnival Center writeup.