The Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst go online with inspiration and finesse

The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst at Severance Hall (in a pre-COVID setting).
© Roger Mastroianni

This week, the Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst resumed live music-making at their Severance Hall home with the first episode of their online concert series. Called In Focus, the hour-long concerts are available via the orchestra’s new digital platform, Adella

Accessible via web browsers as well as TV and mobile apps worldwide, the new series is available free for the orchestra’s subscribers and select donors, alongside in-app subscribers with $35 monthly fee. 

There will be five concerts on the fall season, from 15 October to 10 December, with the first three conducted by Welser-Möst, followed by guest appearances by Bernard Labadie and John Adams. The intriguing line-up of soloists will include pianists Yefim Bronfman, Emanuel Ax, Jan Lisiecki and Vikingur Ólafsson as well as violinist Jung-Min Amy Lee

With repertoire from baroqueto contemporary music, featuring mostly pieces for string orchestra or other smaller-scale forces, in order to meet the safety distances and guidelines, the new online season reflects the identity of the Cleveland Orchestra, much in the same way as the essence of the LA Phil is represented by their SOUND/STAGE online series. 

For the first episode, Inspirations, the orchestra and Welser-Möst have assembled a wonderful playlist, featuring string orchestra pieces by Ottorino Respighi, George Walker and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, all drawing inspiration from past experiences of places and music of yore. 

Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances (Antiche arie e danze) is a set of three orchestral suites, each in four movements, written in 1917, 1923 and 1931, respectively. Each suite is based on a musical material from the lute works of the 16th and 17th century Italian masters, reworked into 20th century guise. 

Whereas the first suite is written for a classical orchestra and the second for larger forces with trombones, timpani and faros added, the third suite uses a string orchestra and is more intimate and melancholy in mood. Due to its orchestration, the third suite is often performed as a standalone piece, and so do Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra also. 

Although rooted in Respighi’s lifelong interest in Italy’s musical past, Ancient Airs and Dances can be viewed as a contribution to the neoclassical tendencies of the era. Like Igor Stravinsky in Pulcinella (1919-20), Respighi too found new means of expression by re-imagining the music of the past. 

With alluring harmonies and enchanting dance idioms embedded, Respighi’s four-movement string suite is a magical garden of sound, where the ancient and the contemporary are joined together with brilliant imagination and (re)invention.    

Together with Welser-Möst, the string players of the Cleveland Orchestra embrace Respighi’s score with inspired commitment, conveying the magnificent sonorities with excellence. The rhythmic intricacies are ever well-articulated, with great care over the finest detail. 

Welser-Möst’s lively tempi serve the music well, resulting in a fabulously engaged performance. A joyous opening indeed.    

George Walker’s Antifonys (1968) for string orchestra is a fascinating piece. Originally scored for a chamber orchestra with multitude of percussion, Walker later went on to adapt the music for strings. Despite its more restricted timbral palette, the rescored version comes off with astounding range of texture and sonic colour, especially when performed by such a marvellous section as the Cleveland Orchestra strings.

In Antifonys, Walker reflects his student days in Paris, with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. The various musical influences of the City of Light, both inside Mademoiselle Boulanger’s studio and out in the streets and venues, come together in this five-minute score in a dazzling way. 

Walker’s score is rooted in rhythmic cells, woven together in formidable counterpoint, in dialogue between various instrumental groupings. The music is vigorous and vehement, charged with uplifting energy, clad in poignant harmonies. 

While Antifonys inhabits a musical realm quite different from Walker’s early Lyric for Strings (1946), perfromed by LA Phil and Gustavo Dudamel on their online season opening, both works share the immediacy of expression and extraordinary emotional communicativeness. 

Astonishingly performed by the Cleveland Orchestra strings with Welser-Möst, Antifonys yields to a fascinating microcosmos of sound, with its tactile textures clad in wondrous detail. There is formidable rhythmic finesse in the performance, combined with fabulously translucent counterpoint. 

The episode concludes with a top-class performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 (1890/1891-92).  Originally conceived as a string sextet, the score has had a successful second life in its adaptation string orchestra, as demonstrated by convicted take by the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst. 

Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra strings. © Roger Mastroianni

Tchaikovsky begun sketching the four-movement score upon his visit to the summery Florence, completing the score in St Petersburg later that summer. In the winter of 1891-92, the composer revised the score before the first performance by the St Petersburg Chamber Society. 

While there are some reflections of the Florentine origins of the music found in the score, the piece is still fundamentally Russian in its idiom, especially in the last two movements. As a whole, the score might be perceived as a journey reflected in music. In any case, Souvenir de Florence is a delightful thing to encounter, providing an apt closure to the concert. 

The opening movement goes into full bloom from the first bars on, building up to a somewhat straightforward sonata form, with a tranquil second subject balancing the heat of the main theme. 

The second movement is a veritable gem, with its eloquent textures and gorgeous melodic flow. Based on an ABA scheme, the sublime outer sections are contrasted by the beautiful tutti passages at the core of the movement.         

In genuinely Tchaikovskyan manner, a dance-interlude ensues, marked allegretto moderato. It’s rhythmic impetus paves the way for an allegro con brio e vivace finale, which brings the work to its energetic D major conclusion. 

With the dexterity of a chamber ensemble combined with the wealth of orchestral sonority, the virtuoso performance by the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst rounds the concert off to its life-affirming close. 

After seven months since the orchestra last performed together, delivering a stupendous take on Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C major, D 944 (1825-26) luckily preserved on disc, the sheer joy of having one of the greatest orchestras on the planet back in action again manifests itself on each and every moment of the episode. Looking forward to the next installment on 29 October.

The Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Ottorino Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3 (1931) for string orchestra

George Walker: Antifonys (1968) for string orchestra

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence (1890/1891-92) for string orchestra

Severance Hall, Cleveland

First released on Thursday 15 October 2020 on Adella.live 

© Jari Kallio 

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