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Movable Cleveland 

Thursday, Jun 16 2005
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Photo by Tre VorleightonANTONIN, FRANZ AND RUDI Two clarinets entwine around a soft arpeggio, and Antonin Dvorák’s F-major Symphony (No. 5 by modern listing, formerly No. 3) is under your skin before you feel its soft touch. No symphony makes its presence known more subtly, more endearingly, yet the work is seldom played. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra performed it at Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall last week; before that, the last local performance I remember was by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium in 1991. Why the orchestra of this particularly gray, unlovable city should claim possession of this particularly radiant, lovable symphony escapes me; lucky Cleveland! The symphony is full of jollity, and also full of ghosts. The ghost of Schubert beguiles me the most. It lurks behind the marvelous good spirits of the opening movement, which is worthy to recall the giggling opening measures of the “Trout” Quintet. Its exuberance is touched with shadows, as it is in the String Quintet of Schubert’s last year. The symphony’s slow movement is the most Schubertian of all; the quiet, melancholy shading into exquisite dark lyricism uncannily evokes the extraordinary Andante of the symphony from Schubert’s deathbed, which has now been rescued from oblivion and published as the Tenth — and which Dvorák, of course, could not possibly have known. I do, I admit, hold a special place for the Dvorák Fifth; it is based on memories of long standing. In student days in Vienna, my friend Rudi and I spent many an afternoon working on this very symphony, in the four-hand piano-duet version that I had bought, probably for 50 cents, in the used-music back room at Doblinger’s music store. I’ll bet Franz Welser-Möst — who is, after all, from that sacred land — shops there, too. HOT AND COLD Now Welser-Möst has inherited the Cleveland, with its tradition of performance excellence more burdensome than that of any other American orchestra. Here over the past week he has performed three varied programs in three venues, none of which — not even at Ojai — reflects the adventurous musical fare he has brought to Cleveland in his three years there. (Do we need whippersnappers from beyond the mountains to show how Ravel should go, so soon after our own Philharmonic season?) Not only for sentiment, I found the Dvorák the most successful manifestation of Welser-Möst’s musical profile during his time here. Looking back over my reports on his seasonal visits guest-conducting the Philharmonic, I find them hot and cold in almost equal measure, with words like “bratty” in frequent occurrence. In Cleveland, if David Mermelstein’s recent Los Angeles Times interview is to be believed (no easy task with that writer), he incurs critical wrath more often than not. Yet his contract has already been extended. (Zubin Mehta redux?) The orchestra, as heard last week at Segerstrom, at Disney and at the Ojai Festival, is not quite the legendary instrument invented by George Szell and maintained by Dohnányi; as much as one could tell from a tour date, its tone strikes me as high-class ordinary. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which followed the Dvorák at Segerstrom, was efficiently delivered but without the biting wit that is at its core. The elegance of Beethoven’s First Symphony turned flat and logy in the Disney concert from the conductor’s decision to employ an almost-full-string complement including six double basses; half as many would have been twice more, as Edo de Waart and our own Philharmonic had proved not many weeks before. Nothing in my book could have saved that concert’s major (in the sense of longest) work, Henri Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, known as “Le Double” for reasons having to do with the way the orchestral members were seated. I’ll leave it at that, since what I heard from the stage was just undifferentiated sound unrelated to who sat where. Dutilleux pushes on toward 90. He has his admirers; I am not one. His music descends from the imponderable French academics post-Franck, the d’Indy crowd, spiced with Stravinsky rhythms and Milhaud jazz — neither used with grace. “Le Double” has been around; it dates from 1959, and I cannot begin to tell you how delightful my life has been without having heard it until now. It did have the advantage of making Ravel’s Boléro, which followed it on the program, sound like a masterpiece. THEN OJAI Under the live oaks and sycamores, Welser-Möst and the orchestra played Stravinsky (the “Dunbarton Oaks” Concerto) and Mozart (the “Linz” Symphony) with forces properly reduced on a stage of no discussable acoustic properties, with the sound amplified for folks on the lawn up back. Down front the sound was clear and truly lovely, recognizably “Cleveland” in quality. The novelty was an alto-sax concerto by Ingolf Dahl, a onetime Ojai hand, revered as the teacher of, among others, Michael Tilson Thomas. Noisy and brash, the work survives only as a curio; a knockout performance by Joseph Lulloff was of little avail. On another concert there were dueling concertmasters: the Cleveland’s William Preucil and the Philharmonic’s Martin Chalifour, in solo sonatas, some of Bartók’s beguiling Duets and an utterly worthless, utterly adorable Suite by Moritz Moszkowski. Better yet was Peter Serkin’s marvelously concocted solo recital — his first ever at Ojai — a brainy mix of ancient vocal and keyboard pieces neatly transcribed, mixed in with modern conceits, including a Messiaen bird number that exactly echoed the surrounding landscape. Strangest of all — and most forgettable — was an evening of bits and pieces that simply didn’t work. It started off with Kantrimiusik, a wildly divergent omnium-gatherum of pastoral dances, songs and sound effects somehow cobbled together by German-Argentine minimalist/collagist Mauricio Kagel. This led into more of same, another pastoral gatherum, this time of hey-nonny-nonny persuasion, of tunes invented or collected by the Australian-American charmer Percy Grainger — harmonized and orchestrated, actually, with more enterprise than is commonly ascribed to his name. Grant Gershon, pressed into service upon the illness of announced music director Oliver Knussen, marshaled his forces — singers, players, sound effects on- and offstage, including an impressive thunderstorm — with bravery that struck me as far beyond duty’s call. At the closing concert — and about time — there was a visitation of the kind of new music on which Ojai’s 59-year reputation rests: a big, rawboned, unashamedly romantic Violin Concerto by Knussen, written three years ago for Pinchas Zukerman and here handsomely dispatched by William Preucil, and Testament by the young (34) British composer Jonathan Cole, conducted by Brad Lubman in its world premiere. A haunting, soft meditation for small ensemble, Testament was underwritten in part by the Sue Knussen Commissioning Fund, to honor the much-missed educator and producer once at the Philharmonic. Next year the Ojai Festival turns 60. Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony are listed among the celebrants, also Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Celebrations are in order.

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