Wednesday, April 18, 2012
The Cleveland Symphony On Tour
The parade of major American orchestras touring through Davies Hall in honor of the San Francisco Symphony's centennial continued this week, with a two-night stand by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under their controversial music director, the 51-year-old Austrian, Franz Welser-Möst above.
His biography, according to Wikipedia, includes this detail: "In 1985, Möst assumed the stage name Welser-Möst on suggestion of his mentor, Baron Andreas von Bennigsen of Liechtenstein, thus paying homage to the city of Wels where he grew up. In 1986, he was adopted by von Bennigsen. In 1992, Welser-Möst married von Bennigsen's former wife, Angelika." This all sounds perilously close to a parody of a Luchino Visconti film.
When Franz Welser-Möst became the conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1990s, the British press anointed him "Frankly, Worse Than Most," which has to be the unkindest classical music nickname since Monsterfat Cowbelly. In Cleveland over the last ten years, there has been further controversy, including the removal of Cleveland Plain-Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg from the symphony beat in 2008 after one too many swipes in the newspaper at Welser-Möst.
Sunday evening's concert in Davies Hall turned out to be quite wonderful, though it started dully with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, The Scottish. The sound of the orchestra, in particular its strings, was amazingly beautiful, but the interpretation was way too Germanic and unvarying for my tastes. "Ponderous" is not a word I associate with Mendelssohn, but it's the best description of the performance I can come up with, which lacked both humor and poetry.
One of the incidental pleasures of the concert was running into everybody at intermission, including the Westphal brothers, Janos Gereben, Charlise the Opera Tattler above, and composer Luiciano Chessa. Most of us were there for the newer music, starting with Orion by the 58-year-old Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. She wrote it for the Cleveland Symphony ten years ago, before embarking on an ambitious trio of operas over the last decade. It's a weird, gorgeous, three-movement piece that often sounds like outer space music, with extreme dynamic contrasts, from the quietest to the loudest and the busiest to the sparest, co-existing comfortably side by side. The battery of percussionists running around the back of the stage were amusing to watch and sensationally good to hear, as was the entire orchestra.
The final piece was a Shostakovich symphony I had never heard before, the Sixth. The symphony is a strange duck, with a slow, contemplative first movement that lasts about twenty minutes, followed by two, short, rambunctious movements that showed off Shostakovich at his funniest and wildest. The performance of the first movement by Welser-Möst and the orchestra was beyond compare, with principal flute Joshua Smith sounding so lyrical it was hard to believe it was the flute he was playing. The final two movements were skillful and virtuosic, but they missed Shostakovich's sarcastic humor altogether.
The San Francisco Symphony is playing the same piece next month with guest conductor Osmo Vänskä, and it should be fascinating to hear what they do with the Shostakovich.