The bulletin from the Cleveland Orchestra, which performed for the first time at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Tuesday night, is that it is still the Cleveland Orchestra, still magnificent. This was the orchestra's first return to Southern California in seven years, and during that time the news from the second-largest city in Ohio hadn't always been good.
Cleveland's population has dipped below 400,000, less than half of what it had been half a century earlier, and the question is regularly asked whether a declining city can continue to support one of the world's finest orchestras. The removal of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's music critic from his beat in 2008 because of his generally unsympathetic reviews of the orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Möst, produced an unhelpful and inconclusive referendum on the conductor in the press and on the blogosphere.
A bitter strike by the musicians two years ago was more bad publicity for the orchestra.
The fact is, Welser-Möst is doing just fine and his orchestra is hanging in there. Now in his 10th season, Welser-Möst has had his contract extended to 2018 and is also in his second season as music director of the Vienna State Opera, the highest post in his native Austria. The Clevelanders, meanwhile, make ends meet as traveling salesmen for their brand. The orchestra has annual residencies in Miami (which lacks an orchestra), Vienna (which recognizes quality when it hears it) and Lucerne, Switzerland (a money magnet). That seems to work for now.
Still, the verdict on Welser-Möst, who is 51, remains, for many, out. In an age of strong podium personalities, he does not seem to put his point of view forward, and it can be hard to know where he stands. He is a traditionalist in a very deep and Old World sense. That means he not only honors the tradition but also the maintenance of tradition, which means championing the new.
His program Tuesday was peculiar but revealing. He made the orchestra the star. He began the concert where most conductors would end a program, with Mendelssohn's Third Symphony ("Scottish"). For the second half, he led Kaija Saariaho's "Orion," an exceptional work that Welser-Möst commissioned a decade ago for his first season in Cleveland. He followed that with Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony.
The Mendelssohn was unfashionably conservative. Welser-Möst ignored the modern research of historical performance practice for early 19th century music to have more bite and returned to the ultra-lush big-orchestra "Scottish" extravaganzas the conductor might have heard in Vienna in his youth. The playing was gorgeously refined and gorgeously grand.
A hallmark of Welser-Möst's tenure in Cleveland has been to play the kind of challenging European new music most American orchestras fear. That has been an uphill battle in Cleveland, and his current seasons are not as adventurous as his early ones were. But Saariaho's "Orion" was one of the first works with which he made a statement. At the time the only American orchestra interested in the Finnish composer, now a star, was the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Welser-Möst made another statement by bringing back "Orion," and the performance was a thrill. The three movements — "Momento Mori," "Winter Sky" and "Hunter" — convey complex webs of starry sounds. There is an outer-space quality to the nose-diving piccolo passages, the misty wind sonorities, the bustling and visceral percussion, the thickets of brass and the droning pulsating strings. The Segerstrom organ added more opulence.
Shostakovich's Sixth was un-Russian. I don't think that was a bad thing, although some might. Shostakovich's symphonies are popular for their narrative personalities, for what audiences like to read into them. Welser-Möst was not here, however, a podium psychoanalyst trying to make sense of the composer's bipolar extremes between the unwavering moodiness of the first movement and the sarcastic exuberance of the second. He let the superficial jolliness remind him of a fast dance in the Vienna Woods.
Giving the luxury of a bravura, some might even say bourgeois, Cleveland sound, the symphony came across second-rate music but first-rate orchestra writing. And like every note this orchestra comes in contact with, it sounded brilliant even when it wasn't.
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