Saturday, January 30, 2010

Music review: Cleveland Orchestra does right by Bernstein

Pianist Joela Jones. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

By Greg Stepanich

Leonard Bernstein always was torn between the needs of his composing and conducting lives, and in the end, the lure of the podium proved too strong for him to write as much music as he said he wanted to.

In a previous Miami residency, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra tackled the first of the three symphonies Bernstein composed, and Friday night they brought us the second. Titled The Age of Anxiety from the W.H. Auden poem that inspired it, the Bernstein Second was finished in 1949, when the composer was 31.

The symphony is more or less a piano concerto, and in listening to it, the audience at the Knight Concert Hall got to hear the work of a composer who, had he not pursued work in the popular theater, sounded as though he could have been an American Shostakovich, and more's the pity that he wasn't. The Cleveland's own pianist, Joela Jones, was the soloist for the symphony, which despite its occasional lapses of taste and somewhat sketchy formal organization, is a work of real quality that should have a more secure place in the repertory.

Jones, a native of Miami who studied at Florida State University and the Eastman School, is a decent pianist who took care of her often boisterous part with vigor and solid technique. But she also sounded quite stiff, and in moments such as the bluesy fifth section (The Masque), Jones was missing the sense of loose, athletic abandon that makes this kind of jazz-besotted music really work.

Orchestrally, there were all the benefits of listening to a major American symphonic ensemble: Full, silky strings, beautifully blended wind and brass sections, and the confident expectation that no difficulty would truly be beyond it. In the first of the symphony's two parts, the opening clarinet duet was dark, rich and lovely, for instance, and in the five-beats-to-a-bar fourth variation the orchestra gave the music a crisp, engaging feeling of play.

In the second part, the strings played the big Dirge theme with majesty and sweep, and the last of the six sections had a kind of grandeur and sense of arrival that Bernstein seemed always to be searching for in the finales of several of his theater pieces. While the music didn't persuade everyone, judging by comments overheard during the intermission, Welser-Möst and the Cleveland did good service for a neglected American work by programming it.

The concert opened with the overture to the opera La Forza del Destino, easily the most popular of Verdi's orchestral preludes. The Cleveland was able to give this music a kind of power and hugeness that the composer almost surely never encountered in the opera theaters of his day, but the music itself is ideally suited for it. Welser-Möst favored a very brisk tempo and some odd accents, especially in the theme for Leonora's prayer, and the clarinetist added a saucy little mordent to his solo a few moments later.

This was high-quality Verdi nevertheless, with a massiveness and unity to the brass sound in particular that served as a most effective color contrast to the rest of the orchestra in the unison E's that open the work, and in the section soli later on.

The final work Friday night was the Symphony No. 3 (in E-flat, Op. 55, Eroica) of Beethoven, one of the seminal works of the canon and one that never fails to astonish by its boldness and originality, especially for its time. Welser-Möst's interpretation was quite unusual, but I found it refreshing and provocative without doing any injury to the music.

Given this conductor's affinity with Bruckner, one is tempted to say that he approached the first movement as though it was Bruckner rather than Beethoven; here, all the phrases had an exceptional liquidity and smoothness, and the dramatic points were made in a narrative fashion that stressed peaks of phrase and dynamic, rather than motif. It was a Beethoven with a sort of rubbery logic in which the music ebbed and flowed, with plush rather than sharp accents: a Romantic, vivid Beethoven with little trace of the Classical tradition in sight.

The funeral march second movement was also in this vein, with a rather fast tempo and a focus on melody rather than drama. Unlike many interpretations, the march kept moving, with a somber rather than anguished fugue, and quietly expiring at the end of natural causes rather than stumbling into silence after pauses between gasps of grief. Again, not a reading that would please traditionalists, but effective just the same.

In the third movement, the scherzo started with an almost imperceptible chatter before building into its climax. The three-horn trio, unfortunately, was rather rough, with a couple blown notes in this most exposed of horn passages the first time through, though it improved with repetition.

The finale also had a hurry-up kind of tempo, with no careful introduction of the simple theme for effect. Welser-Möst pushed through all the variations until the central one with the slow oboe solo, losing some of the interest in hearing how Beethoven took the theme and made so much of it. But it was undeniably exciting even in its hastiness.

I don't know that I'd want to hear it quite this way again, but it's a tribute to Welser-Möst and the orchestra that they were able to make it work so well and still get across the monumentality of what Beethoven accomplished almost 200 years ago.

The Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst will repeat this program tonight at the Knight Concert Hall in the Adrienne Arsht Center on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami. The concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets: $50-$160. Call 305-949-6722 or visit

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