Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
April 18, 2012
Is it possible for a major American orchestra to tour these days without programming a work from a living composer? Of course it is. And yet, if a look at the ensembles on the road over the last two seasons is any indication, surprisingly few do. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston. You name it, American orchestras now tour with new(ish) music as standard practice. This is a good thing, even if it doesn’t always mean that the ensembles involved are doing progressive or cutting edge programming in the particular instance or even in their regular hometown seasons. In yet another example of this practice, The Cleveland Orchestra was the latest ensemble to stop in Southern California this week as a guest of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The evening was built around Kaija Saariaho’s Orion, a work commissioned by the orchestra under its current music director Franz Welser-Möst during the early years of his tenure there. It was an excellent choice. Saariaho continues to be perhaps the most musically satisfying of living composers and the expansive rich textures, often darkly hued, always amaze. She is also perhaps the most sophisticated composer of orchestral music around, and the expanse of these other-worldly three movements that oscillate between furious storms of sound to the quiet reaches of something more inward was profound.
But I did get the nagging feeling that perhaps something was missing, even in this most interesting work on the evening’s program. The rich, certain sound of the Cleveland players is much what you would expect from the legendary orchestra. But conductor Welser-Möst sometimes exhibited a certain rigidity of pacing and overall lack of drama. He’s a particularly curious maestro with a great deal of physical restraint on the podium. It’s tempting, though likely unfair, to assume this physical restraint translates directly his musical interpretations. But I couldn’t help feeling timidity plagued much of the rest of the program. The evening started with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 where the orchestra sounded polished with a lovely rich string sound. But the performance was flat and surprisingly uninvolved. That’s one thing with Mendelssohn, but the same sort of abject stance is harder to take when in comes to Shostakovich. The finale of the evening was the Russian composer’s Symphony No.6, three movements with all the grandiose sorrow and maniacal speed associated with his best work. Welser-Möst dug in here to a much greater degree for a performance that was emphatic if not at all marked by the kind of folk sensibility one commonly gets from Russian ensembles. The performance worked mostly, but it had the feeling of poetry translated from another language, somehow a step removed in the current context. Of course, I could pontificate about how this performance does or doesn’t relate to the many controversies that have swirled around the Cleveland Orchestra in recent years, but that kind of analysis is really rather facile in the end. This is a single performance and has all the real successes and failures real single performances have. The orchestra is still very much embedded in their familiar legacy of superior sound and they can play the heck out of many things including an important piece of recent music.