The Cleveland Orchestra in South Florida, January 2023. Franz Welser-Möst conducts Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ & Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’; Bernd Richard Deutsch’s Intensity, Respighi’s Feste romane & Lisa Batiashvili plays Tchaikovsky

Written by: David M. Rice

Venues: Dreyfoos Concert Hall, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, West Palm Beach, January 23; Knight Concert Hall, Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami, January 27

The Cleveland Orchestra’s annual residency at Miami’s Arsht Center concluded with two programs. I attended a repeat performance of the first January program at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, and I heard the second program at the Arsht. (The residency also included music by Debussy and Mahler conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in November as well as daytime concerts for Miami public school students.). Hearing the Orchestra twice within a five-day span provided an opportunity to compare the two concert halls that lie some seventy miles apart.

I have enjoyed the fine acoustics of both venues for many years, but I was particularly struck on this latest visit to the Knight by its intimacy and the warmth of sound produced by the Cleveland ensemble. Although the two halls have about the same seating capacity, they function differently for their respective arts centers. The Knight is the smaller of the Arsht’s two main spaces, with opera, theatre and ballet performed in the adjacent Ziff Ballet Opera House, whereas the Dreyfoos serves as the Kravis Center’s venue for all such performances as well as for concerts, thus requiring a wider stage and seating area. The Knight’s narrower, ‘shoebox’ configuration and the absence of a proscenium bring listeners closer to the performers and, along with its mostly wooden surfaces, seems to produce a very warm acoustic.

The January 23 program at the Kravis Center consisted of Schubert & Tchaikovsky Symphonies. Throughout, the strings, especially the cellos, were outstanding. The excellent winds offered melodic solos and, whenever the strings receded from the forefront, engaged in pleasing conversation. Clarinet and oboe solos voiced lyrical themes in the Schubert, with bassoon and flute more prominent in the Pathétique. The brass was superb leading the way in generating the most climactic moment at the end of the Pathétique’s martial third movement, with Welser-Möst, to his credit, managing to stem the inevitable, but unwanted, tide of applause without delaying the onset of the Finale. The strings were all but weeping as they evoked the composer’s Adagio lamentoso marking. It is quite unusual for each work on a program to end, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, “not with a bang, but a whimper,” but Welser-Möst brought it off admirably. This quiet ending is especially poignant since Tchaikovsky died nine days after conducting its premiere.

The Clevelanders’ second program, heard at the Arsht, was constructed with much greater diversity. It also advances the cause of introducing audiences to the output of contemporary composers. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto lies squarely within the Romantic tradition. Lisa Batiashvili gave it a fervent reading, marked by richness and variety of tone and brilliant virtuosity, particularly evident in the first-movement cadenza. Her 1739 Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ instrument sang out sweetly in the Canzonetta, and she attacked the folk-dance inspired Finale with delightful gusto. Welser-Möst made the orchestra a perfect accompanist, playing with precision and delicacy, and never overpowering or upstaging the soloist.

The second half featured two pieces for large orchestra composed a century apart if having some common characteristics. Austrian Bernd Richard Deutsch, the Cleveland Orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow, wrote Intensity on a commission from the Cleveland and the Wiener Symphoniker. Its three movements alternate fast and slow tempos, with the contemplative central one the longest in duration. The work’s soundscape is quite eclectic, with contributions from English horn, contrabassoon, piano and celesta as well as a wide range of percussion that create some of the more entertaining and witty moments, as when a slide whistle is given several solos. The outer movements are, for the most part, fast-paced and quite episodic, with rapid changes from one brief segment to another. The composer envisions the music as a progression from a departure, to introspection during absence, and finally, to a return.

The concert ended with Respighi’s Roman Festivals, composed in 1928 as the third in the composer’s triptych, which also pays homage to The Eternal City’s Fountains and Pines. A program is explicit, portraying four festive occasions in ancient and modern Rome. The orchestration is as varied as in Deutsch’s piece, and at times the music seems to jump from one mood to another in rapid succession, not too much differently from what had just been heard before. Welser-Möst placed three trumpets on a gallery behind and above the stage to herald the arrival of the gladiators in ‘Circenses’ (Games of the Circus Maximus), but the lament that came soon afterward serves as a reminder that their combat was to the death. The two middle movements featured lovely solos on horn and mandolin, respectively, and the final movement, ‘La Befana’ (The Epiphany), depicting the gathering of celebrants in the Piazza Navona, was an overwhelming cacophony of sound and counter-rhythms that brought a powerful conclusion.

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