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Orchestral Music Review

Cleveland Orchestra Plays Thrilling Concert in Asheville

January 28, 2007 - Asheville, NC:

For the first time in 25 years, the Cleveland Orchestra performed in Asheville in a concert that helped to celebrate the 75th year of the Asheville Bravo! Concerts. Led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, the orchestra played Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round,” Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones concertantes,” and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, known as the “Titan.” Playing each piece with high artistry and polish, the orchestra achieved a wonderful sonic quality that was limited only by the acoustics of the venerable Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

The orchestra arrived in Asheville in the late afternoon, and its bus caravan flanked the front of the concert hall. The Clevelanders had just finished their two-week residency at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, where they had performed a series of sold-out concerts. In fact, they performed the same program that was given in Asheville on Friday and Saturday evening in Miami.

It was conceivable that the musicians would be tired and worn out after a day-long trip, but they did not rest on their laurels and give a lackluster concert. Instead, their playing was fully committed to the music, and everyone in the audience could easily grasp why this orchestra is regarded as one of the best in the world.

The concert began with “Last Round,” which Golijov wrote in 1996 as a tango-infused tribute to fellow countryman and composer Astor Piazzola. Because the music is scored for two string orchestras and double-bass, Welser-Möst had one complete string section on his right and the other on his left. It was fun to watch the strings play with each other and against each other in this piece. They often worked as one unit, seamlessly trading passages with the other, so that one section finished what the other started. In this way, the orchestra imitated the sound of a bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument that has become a centerpiece of tango music, and at one point the entire ensemble seemed to sigh together.

This piece has lots of pulsating rhythms, anchored by the basses, which gradually became faster or slower in a subtle way. Concertmaster William Preucil and principal violist Robert Vernon made some devilishly tricky solo passages look easy and elegant.

In the program notes, Golijov says the Piazzola died “without saying goodbye,” and he evokes that sense of loss near the end of the piece when the mood turns melancholy. There’s a dramatic buildup with throbbing bass voices that then clarifies into a quick question-like statement from the violins. Then the music vanishes.

Next, the orchestra played “Variaciones concertantes” by Ginastera, written in 1953 as a concerto for orchestra. Inspired by the folk music of his Argentinean homeland, Ginastera created a new recognizable, international sound that has made this piece one of the most performed of modern works. Its nine variations challenge each member of the orchestra with a wide variety of tempi and tonal combinations.

Since “Variaciones concertantes” features many passages in which only a few instruments are playing, I could hear many individual members of the orchestra. Principal cellist Desmond Hoebig enriched the auditorium with a beautiful, full tone during his solo. He also added drama as he sustained his final note and made it slowly diminish before the other strings picked up the same note with exquisite tenderness. Wow!

Among the many individual highlights during this piece were the woody sound of principal Franklin Cohen’s clarinet, the dusky duet of principal oboe Frank Rosenwein and principal bassoonist John Clouser, the gorgeous tone of principal harpist Lisa Wellbaum, and the brilliant playing of concertmaster Preucil. I also loved the smooth sound of the horns and trumpets and the basses playing above the thrumming strings in the final measures.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which was composed during the years 1885 to 1889 and named “Titan” after a novel by Jean Paul, a German Romantic writer. The Austrian-born Welser-Möst marshaled his 100-plus ensemble into the exciting soundscape of this hour-long masterpiece with an incisive interpretation.

The pacing and rhythmic drive were focused and organic. The orchestra’s sound could instantly change from silky to sullen to anger whenever needed. I loved the jocular woodwinds in the second movement; the crisp, gradual, thick layering of sound in the third movement as the Frère Jacques melody became more complex; and the snarling brass in the fourth movement.

The dynamic contrasts were fine for the most part, but the triumphant finale could have used more volume in order to deliver more emotional impact. As far as I could tell, everyone in the orchestra was at full throttle, but for some reason the sound didn’t increase very much. The lack of punch leads me to speculate that the concert hall has some serious acoustic limitations.

This was my first time in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which has a seating capacity of 2431 and seemed to be about 80 percent full at the end of the first piece. There were a lot of late arrivals and many members of the audience were still being seated after the Golijov’s “Last Round” had started. This trend continued throughout the evening as more people drifted in, and it became disruptive enough that during the second movement of the Mahler symphony, Welser-Möst actually turned around while he was conducting to look dismayingly at the balcony to his left where some newcomers were taking their seats.

It did seem that most of those who took a seat after intermission were students, and although an open door policy for the arts is usually a good thing, the movement easily distracted those around them who had paid a fair amount of money ($35 to $85 per ticket) to attend the concert.

By the end of the Mahler, the audience filled over 90 percent of the house, and the concertgoers jumped to their feet to give the Cleveland Orchestra a standing ovation. The warmth generated by the applause was genuine and well needed, because as soon as we filed out of the building, we were greeted by a blast of cold air and an inch of snow.

*We are pleased to welcome guest critic James Bash to CVNC. He has written about classical music for many publications, including the American Record Guide, Opera, Symphony, International Arts Manager, MUSO, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, and the Eugene Register-Guard. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Kathy, who is a native of Asheville. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.