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Cultural emissaries left their ambition in Ohio

Times Staff Writer

The Cleveland Orchestra is no symphony for wimps. Indeed, it is in the Ohio metropolis’ Severance Hall, not the supposed hotbeds of orchestral innovation in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the latest news from Austria’s current darling of the hip, Olga Neuwirth (in the form of a new piano concerto with Marino Formenti as soloist), was delivered recently and where something new from England’s acclaimed Oliver Knussen could have been heard -- had he finished it in time.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has played but two works written in the last 50 years since its opening galas at the Walt Disney Concert Hall four months ago. Remember when critics around the world wrote, in awe and envy, of our orchestra breaking the mold in its new venue?

Well, Clevelanders, past and present, have had their chance to show us a thing or two this month. Two weeks ago, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Cleveland’s previous music director, made his L.A. Philharmonic debut. And on Thursday night, the Ohio orchestra’s current leader, Franz Welser-Most, returned as guest conductor. But inexplicably, both left their imaginations at home.

There was nothing particularly wrong with Welser-Most’s concert other than the fact that it had little to say by a conductor who usually has more. A few years ago, the young Austrian overcame the Philharmonic’s disgraceful neglect of the music of California’s then most important living composer, Lou Harrison.

Originally, Welser-Most announced that he would conduct Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony on this month’s program, preceded by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with Radu Lupu as soloist. Not much adventure there, but at least the Bruckner is a big, ambitious work, one that he happens to do quite well and that could make a splash in Disney.

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Ambition, however, went the way of imagination when Welser-Most changed his mind, replacing the Bruckner with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Strauss’ “Artists’ Life” Waltz. Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra were thrown in to add a bit of early 20th century zip, but the program had the quality of a night in old Vienna.

Given that Welser-Most’s musical roots are in Vienna, his instincts for this music are not in question. Schubert’s beloved symphony was dispatched with care -- Schubertian melody lovingly shaped, dramatic contrasts sharply etched, playing full of detail. The work came to life. But only just, and with little revelation.

In contrast to Schubert’s comfortable lyricism, Berg’s Three Pieces roiled. Written as World War I broke out, Berg’s score said goodbye to Habsburg Vienna without really meaning it. Out of all the instrumental commotion, fragments of melody -- great gasps of Mahlerian expression -- keep erupting. Yes, war is noisy, Berg seems to say, it sheds blood, messes everything up, but look, here, here and here are bits of life as we knew it.

Welser-Most conducted as if at home with the old and the new, happy with all the noise but equally delighted to let melody soar. Still, this was a nervous and nervous-making performance. The orchestra was nearly there (by Sunday it should sing), yet it made a Schubert-lulled audience uneasy.

After intermission, lyricism reigned once and for all. In Mozart’s ravishing A-major concerto, Lupu’s playing was all grace, refinement and pearly polish. No pianist is quite so smooth-sounding as this gruff-appearing Romanian who kicks his chair out of the way (no padded bench for him) when he stands to take a bow.

Disney’s acoustics wonderfully revealed the most sensitive nuances of Lupu’s phrasing and gorgeous tone, but he brought little drama to the music. Nor was there much interplay between soloist and orchestra. Welser-Most maintained discipline; he piloted the airplane. Lupu was the fluffy cloud floating next to it. Mozart drifted by.

The program book told us that Welser-Most is proudly observing the tradition of ending concerts with Johann Strauss Jr., a tradition Mahler is said to have started. In Mahler’s case, that may have been a hyper-intense conductor’s way to relieve tension. But Thursday, there wasn’t much tension to relieve by the time the “Artists’ Life” came around. Welser-Most conducted it with an admirable combination of verve, lilt and sophistication. But this waltz was another era’s dessert.


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