Delightful Dvořák and messy Messiaen in wildly uneven Cleveland Orchestra concert
Concert programs are something of a mystery in plain sight. The standard orchestra concert is built with three pieces: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony.
Programs like those are a commonplace but never an obligation, and music directors make their own choices. There is more than one right way to assemble a concert, but there’s essentially only one wrong way to do it: make a program that leaves the audience wondering, “What were they thinking?” And that’s the kind of program Franz Welser-Möst led with his Cleveland Orchestra at the Lincoln Center Festival Thursday night.
In Avery Fisher Hall the orchestra played three pieces, two by Messiaen before intermission—Hymne and Chronochromie—and afterward the Dvořák Symphony No. 5. There is no clear discernible relationship between the work of each composer, nor did the musicians make the case for one. Instead, they just played the music. The unfortunate part was that two-thirds of the pieces they played badly.
Technically, the musicians played all the notes of the Messiaen works, managed (with some difficulty) all the rhythms and the dynamics—and in the second piece, Chronochromie, the spotlighted percussionists were superb. Musically, aesthetically, philosophically, they could have been playing anything at random, although they left the impression they tried to play Messiaen as if it was Strauss, and were frustrated that it was not.
Welser-Möst and the musicians showed no understanding of what Messiaen is about. The non-Western rhythms, the circular harmonies, the massive tuttis, the bird songs, all are elements of the composer’s synesthesia and his ecstatic Catholicism. His music explodes with joy, religious mystery, sensuality, and a physicality that barely veils a powerful vein of eroticism. Hymne was a joyless exercise, while the dazzling, phantasmagorical Chronochromie was grudging and grim—the well-played percussion interludes apart.
There was a lot of energy coming off the stage, but it seemed largely concentrated on getting through the scores unscathed. In the opening Hymne, Welser-Möst showed little familiarity with the meaning of the music. His focus was on guiding the orchestra through the score, which he did without discernible pleasure. A palpable feeling of anxiety was evident on the stage, with the musicians looking worried over what might be coming next (understandably so with the rigid results in the complex string passages of the “Epode” section in Chronochromie). It was a dull and unpleasant first half, a shame when the compositions were so fine.
And then after intermission, the concert felt like a different orchestra and a different conductor entirely. The fame of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony overshadows how stolid most of his early symphonic writing was, as in the Symphony No. 5, a work rarely played or recorded because it’s run of the mill. What a surprise, then, that musicians who seemed to have no idea what they were doing in remarkable music would be full of ideas about ordinary music, and make it sound remarkable.
The Cleveland musicians gave the music weight, beauty and expression. It was a wonderful performance, involving and delightful. The musicians were clearly relieved to be playing something more familiar, or at least written in a more predictable language. Welser-Möst drew out long, lyrical phrases, bucolic woodwind colors, and an overall sense of lighthearted, pastoral charm, with a foundation of well-crafted form and structure.
Each phrase and detail was considered and played with a musical purpose, and all the details fit together into a meaningful large-scale form, rather than just an extended series of episodes. Best of all was the clear pleasure the musicians had in playing, which was a joy to hear.
The Cleveland Orchestra plays Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and Strauss’s Symphonia domestica 7:30 p.m. Friday, and repeat Strauss’s Daphne 7:30 p.m. Sunday. lincolncenterfestival.org.