Delightful Dvořák and messy Messiaen in wildly uneven Cleveland Orchestra concert

Fri Jul 17, 2015 at 1:08 pm
Franz Welser-Möst, conducted the Cleveland Orchestra  Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Stephanie Berger

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.

3 Responses to “Delightful Dvořák and messy Messiaen in wildly uneven Cleveland Orchestra concert”

  1. Posted Jul 17, 2015 at 4:55 pm by John

    Interesting. Chronochromie is an insanely difficult work requiring utmost concentration from the performers. I don’t think you will ever hear a better performance of it than what the Clevelanders offered last night. It was actually astonishing how well-played it was, and with an incredible attention to detail. The Dvorak, however, was the walk in the park. As well played as it was (this orchestra can’t play badly), it was not remarkable. There’s only so much that this great ensemble can do when their maestro hurries them through every phrase.

    Perhaps this critic should learn to listen with his ears and not his eyes.

  2. Posted Jul 18, 2015 at 8:52 am by Lewis

    Well – I fall in between. I thought the Messiaen was played well enough – but nothing special. The Dvorak was enjoyable – but once again, as in Daphne, the brass section, especially the horns, seems prone to distress. The first two concerts were so dispiriting I skipped using my ticket for the Beethoven/Strauss concert.

    The biggest mystery about these 3 concerts is why did they occur? They are part of the Lincoln Center Festival – but nothing especially Festival-like seemed to have been programmed. The three concerts had not connection thematically – and the Clevelanders play Carnegie Hall almost every year. So what were they doing here playing three programs under the middling maestro Franz Welzer Most? (I lived in London when he was the MD there – known by press and audiences as Franz Welser Worst’ and ‘Franz Worser Worst.’)

    A colleague blamed Avery Fisher Hall for the dreary weary sound the orchestra made in these two concerts. But when a great orchestra plays AFH, somehow the hall doesnt seem to be a detriment. That said, almost every orchestra that sounds great in this hall elevates the winds and brass on platforms.

    But even the NYPO (speaking of dreary-sounding orchestras) can sound like a great orchestra on the very rare occasion when they are led by a great conductor – Muti for example. (although when Muti returned to the NYPO after turning them down for Chicago, the NYPO seemed to exact revenge on him by playing badly)

    Festivals do things like the Budapest Festival Orchestra Mozart operas, or 3 concert events based on a seldom heard composer – or at least bring in ensembles that we dont hear all the time.

    Most of all, I think Cleveland sounded like an orchestra that didn;t need New York, and would rather have been on summer vacation.

  3. Posted Jul 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm by David H

    I thought the performance of Chronochromie was spectacular. The players brought a sense of wild abandon and yet the ensemble was superbly precise. After all, it was the Clevelanders who first proved, under Boulez in their recording from the 90s, that this transcendentally difficult work could be performed accurately. And this was thirty years after its premiere.

    I attended the performance at Severance last May and was stunned again by the orchestra’s chops, which were again in evidence at Lincoln Center.

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