Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
February 22

Smart, challenging music from a fearless quintet.

Experimental music is always a tough sell, as evinced by the small crowd that turned out for the Cleveland debut of Victoire. Beatles nostalgia? Three days of capacity crowds. Israeli fusion? A sellout. Cutting-edge classical from New York hipsters? Plenty of empty seats, and not even enough applause to merit an encore.

Which is too bad. Victoire is one of the most interesting contemporary ensembles in America, a self-described group of “musical misfits” who are breaking genuinely new ground. Founded by Missy Mazzoli, a 32-year old keyboard player and composer who studied with David Lang and Louis Andriessen, among others, the quintet employs elements from traditional chamber music, opera and indie rock, mixed with a wide variety of electronics and sound effects to create hypnotic soundscapes that defy categorization. For this performance they were joined by vocalist Mellissa Hughes, whose dreamy soprano lent an ethereal quality to the sound.

Experimental does not mean unstructured. While many of Victoire’s pieces sound chaotic, they are typically characterized by an introductory riff – a repeating electronic phrase or beat, a pulsing rhythm from the keyboards or strings, occasionally an abstract bass or vocal line – that provides the foundation for methodical layers of other sounds. The violin and clarinet drift in and out with melodies, or snatches of melodies; the bass pumps out a dissonant throb or long, low drones; keyboards burst into a sudden minimalist frenzy, or linger over soaring, celestial chords; random noises come and go – electronic clicks and pops, static, disembodied voices.

Making all that work together calls for talented players, and in that respect Victoire has impeccable credentials. Violinist Olivia De Prato is a classically trained chamber musician who has appeared at many modern music festivals and toured with Esperanza Spalding. Mellissa Hughes sings regularly with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and this season made her debut with the New York City Opera. Keyboard player Lorna Krier, bass player Eleonore Oppenheim and clarinetist Eileen Mack are all regulars on the New York modern music circuit. And along with composing the music and playing keyboard, Mazzoli will pick up a mini-accordion or melodica, or jump over to the laptop, to add colorful embellishments to the sound.

Much of the group’s 70-minute set at the Art Museum was drawn from their debut CD Cathedral City, and included a version of the title track grounded by the three classical instruments (violin, bass and clarinet) while the keyboards, electronics and voices skipped along to a techno beat. A Song for Arthur Russell also featured fine detail work by the violin and clarinet against an electronic background. Mazzoli’s Orizzonte for solo piano and electronics was the least interesting piece of the evening, an insubstantial work that never developed any momentum. A Thousand Tongues started with reverb effects from the keyboards and blossomed into a showcase piece for the entire ensemble, with smart dual lines from the violin and clarinet and impressive vocals by Hughes.

The audience seemed a bit shell-shocked by it all, applauding politely and then bolting for the exit doors. That’s not an unusual reaction by general listeners to specialized music, though it doesn’t say much for Cleveland, which likes to think of itself as a friendly Midwestern city with sophisticated East Coast tastes. Not this time.

CMA programmers Massoud Saidpour and Tom Welsh deserve a ton of credit for testing those boundaries – indeed, for a steady stream of exotic, first-rate performers in this year’s VIVA! & Gala series. And Mazzoli and company seemed to enjoy themselves, hopefully enough to come back. In an avant-garde venue with more volume and an appreciative audience, they would strike a very different note.

For more on Victoire and a sampling of their music: www.victoiremusic.com

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Severance Hall
February 21

A hit with both the audience and musicians.

Inspiration returned to Severance Hall with a flourish this weekend in the person of conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who offered a masterful treatment of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and a thrilling rendition of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”).

This space was critical of Blomstedt’s handling of Nielsen and Beethoven symphonies the previous weekend, in his first of two consecutive appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra. The music sounded pro forma – competent, but not what one expects from a conductor of Blomstedt’s caliber. By comparison, the Mozart and Dvořák symphonies were electric, carefully crafted interpretations that imbued old warhorses with fresh energy.

Blomstedt conducted the Mozart symphony much as one imagines the composer himself would have: standing on the stage floor rather than a podium, working without a baton or score. Reduced to about 40 players, the orchestra was also in an 18th-century mode. From the opening bars, Blomstedt established a tone befitting Mozart’s later works – darker in color, with a steady, somber tempo. It’s not uncommon to hear that in the first movement of this symphony, but Blomstedt kept a tight rein throughout, lending the piece gravitas.

The stately tempo let the music breathe in the second movement, space that Blomstedt used to good advantage in creating light, elegant strings and clear, rounded woodwinds. Turning both the volume and tempo up a bit in the third movement gave him an opportunity to draw strong contrasts between the top and bottom strings. The famous fourth movement also demands a faster pace, but Blomstedt maintained superb control, finding nuances in the music and keeping it clear and balanced. Even more impressive than the sound was watching him regulate it with an understated roll of the wrist, or sometimes a single finger.

The orchestra doubled in size for Dvořák, and unlike the timid percussion he used in Beethoven’s Symphony. No. 7, Blomstedt came out blazing in the New World – not just with a booming timpani, but piercing horns that remained prominent throughout the entire piece. As someone who has heard Czech orchestras play this symphony on a number of occasions, this critic found the horn treatment, along with much of Blomstedt’s phrasing, unusual but not unsatisfying. The Czechs tend to identify with and emphasize the emotion in the piece. Blomstedt approached it as a masterwork of composition, giving equal weight to every section of the orchestra and maintaining sterling transparency even in the noisier passages.

That gave the woodwinds in the second movement an added sparkle, though what really impressed was the hushed sound of the violins – a distinctive feature of the second movement that is very difficult to achieve. Blomstedt was by turns explosive and restrained in the third movement, and maintained a fine balance in the fourth until the closing moments, when the horns rightfully came to the fore. In all, it was a well-considered and lovingly crafted interpretation, the work of a mature professional.

Blomstedt ended the evening with a love note, one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (Opus 46, No. 1) as an encore. The music was almost overwhelming coming from such a large orchestra, but the big sound matched the love everyone was feeling at that point – including the players, who stamped their feet and tapped their bows, echoing the enthusiastic applause from the audience. It was a fitting tribute not just to that evening’s performance, but to a world-class artist who, at 85, still has something to say.

To hear George Szell’s version of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9: http://www.clevelandorchestra.com/event-detail/2013-Feb-23.aspx?pid=10058

Friday, February 22, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
February 20
Cleveland State University
February 19
Plymouth Church
February 17

Duo plus one: Warner, Umble and Warner.

The past week has brought a surfeit of chamber music, a welcome respite from the leaden skies and gloomy days of February. There’s nothing like small halls filled with elegant, uplifting music to chase the winter blues.

In that regard, pianist Carolyn Gadiel Warner’s annual gathering of friends at the Cleveland Institute of Music on Wednesday couldn’t have been better-timed. And what a group of friends! A longtime member of the CIM faculty and Cleveland Orchestra, Warner was joined by a supporting cast that included fellow orchestra members John Clouser (bassoon), Mark Jackobs (viola), Jesse McCormick (French horn), Frank Rosenwein (oboe), Marisela Sager (flute) and Stephen Warner (violin). The latter is also her husband and partner in the Cleveland Duo; they play frequently with alto saxophonist James Umble, who joined them in Mixon Hall.

It’s an unusual program – none of it is in the mainstream repertoire,” Warner cautioned in her introduction. Which turned out to be a bonus. Instead of the usual Bach, Brahms and Beethoven fare, the audience was treated to late 19th/early 20th-century works by Darius Milhaud, Ernst von Dohnányi and Ludwig Thuille. Each had distinctive points of interest, and all benefited from fine playing.

Composed for a 1923 ballet, Milhaud’s La Création du Monde reflects the composer’s fascination with American jazz – actually, more like an obsession in this happy cacophony of Gershwin-like street sounds and catchy melodies. If it sounded anemic, that’s because La Création was originally written for a 29-piece ensemble which included five timpani. Still, it was well worth hearing in Warner’s arrangement for quartet, particularly the soulful sax work by Umble. So was von Dohnányi’s Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 2 (rather than the more familiar No. 1), a melodramatic work that swoops and swells and features lots of anxious quivering in the strings. The sound became ragged around the edges in the final movements, and no wonder – the piece is nearly 30 minutes long, and demands intense concentration throughout. Otherwise, the playing was sharp and thoughtful.

Thuille’s Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet was gorgeous, a relatively straightforward late Romantic work that sounded surprisingly modern at times in its melodies and tonal combinations. The wind and horn ensemble was quite good, turning in a polished, spirited performance that featured sparkling solos by clarinetist Elinor Rufeizen. That fit perfectly with the snow falling outside the glass wall behind the performers, which added a touch of enchantment to the evening.

A supple stylist.
At Cleveland State’s Drinko Hall on Tuesday, faculty member and pianist Robert Cassidy put together a more familiar program that also featured high-caliber Cleveland Orchestra talent (and another husband-wife team) in cellist Tanya Ell and clarinetist Robert Woolfrey. Cassidy opened with a solo performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto (BWV 971), showing a fluid, supple style and a fine balance between technical precision and sensitive expression.

Ell joined him for Beethoven’s Sonata in G minor for Piano and Cello (Op. 5, No. 2) and displayed impressive command of her instrument, particularly in playing on the bridge to establish the opening low tones. Ell squeezes an amazing amount of expression out of the cello, and worked well with Cassidy, creating a delicate interplay with him in the final movement. Woolfrey’s turn with Cassidy was less satisfying, mostly because of the piece, Introduction, Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Piano by Rossini. Woolfrey was up to the technical demands of the fast-paced, repeating clarinet phrases, but the work itself never develops much beyond a set of dexterity exercises.

The full trio established an authoritative sound immediately in the finale, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat major (Op.11), better-known as the Gassenhauer Trio. Their deft handling of the many shifting tempos was seamless, and the intelligence and verve of their performance left this critic wishing there had been more trios on the bill. Still, the concert (part of the John A. Flower Faculty Concert Series) more than merited the live broadcast slot it was given on WCLV.

Have lute, will travel.
For pure escape, there is nothing better than Baroque, and Debra Nagy’s Les Délices ensemble offered a particularly refined retreat with a “Portrait of Love” program at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights on Sunday afternoon. British lute and theorbo specialist Nigel North joined the group and established a warm, fluid sound with entrées and other short solo pieces in the first half, which focused on early music (Robert Ballard, Pierre Guédron). Both North and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw had an opportunity to showcase their dexterity on an engaging duet, Gabrielle Bataille’s Ma bergere non legére.

Shaw was best when she had a chance to be expressive in later works, like Michel Lambert’s D’Un feu secret. But the group’s exquisite sound comes primarily from two players – Nagy on recorder and oboe, and Emily Walhout on viola da gamba – who were outstanding. Walhout transfixed the audience with a commanding solo, De Machy’s Prélude, eliciting enthusiastic and well-deserved applause. And Nagy took every piece up a notch when she came in, especially with ornamentation on selections like Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre’s J’avois juré.

Nagy said farewell to the packed house with a reminder that the group’s next Cleveland concerts (April 20 & 21) will feature “one of the world’s finest hurdy-gurdy players.” We can hardly wait.

For more on Les Délices: http://www.lesdelices.org/LD/Home.html

For more on Robert Cassidy: http://www.robertcassidypianist.com/

For more on Carolyn Gadiel Warner and the Cleveland Duo: http://www.clevelandduo-umble.com/

Robert Cassidy photo by Roger Mastroianni

Monday, February 18, 2013


Severance Hall
February 14

Off to the races with a consummate pro.

Do superstar conductors have off-nights? Judging from Herbert Blomstedt’s performance with the Cleveland Orchestra last Thursday, they can certainly have uninspired ones.

The relatively short program featured two symphonies: Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Blomstedt, a Swedish-American who has led orchestras from Stockholm to San Francisco for nearly 60 years, did not use a score for either piece, working from memory in short, efficient strokes. His economical style on the podium reflects his larger stage presence: all business, with only perfunctory bows, and none taken without the full orchestra standing for applause as well.

Nielsen labeled his 1910-11 work “expansive” not only as a musical cue (the first movement is marked Allegro espansivo), but also as a thematic statement, reflecting its all-encompassing vision of heaven and earth. Blomstedt established its exuberant quality immediately, with a brisk opening movement that evoked a carnival atmosphere at times. The sound was not very crisp, with most of the color coming from the horns. This was characteristic of the entire evening. The orchestra’s glorious strings tend to dominate most performances, but Blomstedt worked off the rich tones and vibrant colors he drew from the horns and woodwinds.

The second movement was also uptempo, surprisingly so for a pastoral interlude. The wordless vocals floated in and out of the music beautifully, though with soprano Ellie Dehn and baritone Michael Kelly singing offstage, it was hard to appreciate their artistry. But the fine balance demonstrated one of Blomstedt’s strengths – his ability to carefully calibrate the sound, taking it from full volume to a whisper in a heartbeat.

Rhythms, mostly in the strings, drove the third and fourth movements, and Blomstedt embellished those nicely with colorful accents from the horns. But the frantic pace robbed the music of some of its clarity, particularly in passages with the full orchestra, which sounded dense and even cluttered at times. It wasn’t until the closing minutes of the fourth movement that the energy and disparate musical elements finally coalesced into a three-dimensional aural image, giving the piece the depth and authority it lacked.

The Beethoven symphony sounded much the same: strikingly uptempo, with bloodless strings, captivating woodwinds, and a bright, dry tone. Despite a propulsive rhythm in the first movement, the strings never really caught fire, and the percussion was so soft as to nearly disappear at times. That was true of the entire piece, which lost some of its characteristic impact with a muted timpani.

As in the Nielsen work, Blomstedt used the strings as the rhythmic engine, which turned the second movement into a dance rather than a dirge – more like Beethoven’s sixth rather than his fifth symphony. Well-crafted and finely articulated, it nonetheless lacked tension and dynamics.

The famous melodies of the third movement were better-suited to Blomstedt’s style, rendered in engagingly brisk and playful fashion. The final movement raced by at a gallop, with more fine work from the horns and a rousing momentum that brought the audience to its feet even before the final notes had faded.

Which offered a reminder that interpretations are often a matter of taste. For this critic, Franz Welser-Möst’s reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in November was more thoughtful and refined, adding interesting dimensions to the piece. By comparison, Blomstedt’s No. 7 seemed like a surface treatment – clean and smart, but with nothing new to say. He will be back this week with mainstays of the repertoire from Mozart and Dvořák. Hopefully those will hold more inspiration.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Severance Hall
February 9

Italian by birth, with a flair for the Russian repertoire.

Like everybody else, conductors run hot and cold. Making his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night, Gianandrea Noseda showed how to put those contrasting approaches to very good use in a colorful program of Rachmaninoff, Rota and Prokofiev.

Noseda, 48, has one of the more impressive resumes among visiting maestros this season. Born in Milan, he is currently music director of the Teatro Regio opera house in Turin and holds guest conductor posts with the Israel Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony. He is a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with a discography of more than 35 recordings ranging from Beethoven to Bartók. To judge from his performance on Saturday, the Italian repertoire is in his blood and the Russian repertoire an acquired passion, deeply felt on both intellectual and emotional levels.

Which made the opening piece a perfect choice: Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, a seldom-heard symphonic poem that Noseda is also performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (earlier this month) and Filarmonica della Scala (in Milan next month). A florid, tumultuous work inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous painting, the piece is a vividly descriptive narrative of a visit to the island that incorporates the Dies Irae chant from the Catholic funeral Mass.

Noseda did more than bring the piece to life. He set it on fire, starting softly and building with convincing authority to great heaving swells of emotion, music to make the blood race and the heart pound. The danger in this interpretation lies in being overly melodramatic, and certainly there were passages in that vein. But then, one could say that about a lot of the Russian repertoire. And Noseda has a fine sensitivity for the conflicting elements in the score – shimmering strings on top, dark undercurrents in the cellos and bass running underneath. There were moments when the divergent high and low ends of the sound seemed almost to be at war with each other, creating an unsettling but brilliant tension. It was a powerful, memorable reading, particularly for a non-piano Rachmaninoff piece.

There are not many concertos written for trombone, which was probably reason enough to put one by Nino Rota on the program. Best-known as a film composer – he wrote the signature music for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series, and many Fellini films – Rota gets regular play in Europe, but not much here; this was the first time the Cleveland Orchestra performed his 1966 Trombone Concerto. The music is not terribly complex, especially sandwiched between two towering Russian works. The soloist, however, was first-rate. Massimo La Rosa, the orchestra’s regular principal trombonist, showed impressive command of his instrument in fashioning clear, beautifully rounded tones. And Noseda showed his opera background with lively orchestral accompaniment that buoyed but never drowned out the soloist, a difficult balance to strike in any circumstance.

Given his overheated treatment of Rachmaninoff, one might have expected Noseda to take the same approach in the concluding piece, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6. But he did exactly the opposite, giving it a cool, cerebral burnish that reinforced the principal theme of the work – a celebration of the end of the World War II tempered by a profound realization of the bloody price of victory. Even the echoes of battle horns and clashing armies were kept in controlled restraint, with the percussion as sharp as gunshots and the passages of loss and regret never becoming maudlin. The clarity of the piano lines offered another reminder of Noseda’s fine sense of balance, and his deft handling of the fast-paced third movement was dazzling, featuring virtuoso work from the violins.

Noseda is a generous conductor, acknowledging the orchestra before he takes his own bows. In fact, after ending the Prokofiev symphony with an electric crackle, he made almost every player stand for extra applause – not just the percussionists, as is typical with Prokofiev or Shostakovich. The accolades were well-deserved. But Noseda was the star of the performance, with his masterful command of the material, thoughtful and versatile approaches, and ability to turn what could have been a pro forma program into something special.

For more on Gianandrea Noseda: www.gianandreanoseda.com

For more on Nino Rota’s film scores: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000065/

Noseda photo by Ramella & Giannese

Sunday, February 3, 2013


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
February 1

Bringing a Renaissance instrument into the 21st century.

In a decade of music writing, this critic never had occasion to use the terms “Baroque” and “rock ’n’ roll” in the same sentence. But over the past week, in a stroke of Jungian synchronicity, there have been two: A performance by Finnish opera singer Topi Lehtipuu with the Collegium 1704 Baroque orchestra in Prague, and a guest appearance by lute player Ronn McFarlane with Apollo’s Fire in Cleveland.

Lehtipuu, 41, is an opera star and captivating tenor who held the audience breathless singing Monteverdi and Vivaldi arias – no small accomplishment in Prague, a city that sees world-class singers on a regular basis. Trained at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, he has developed a repertoire that stretches from Bach to Stravinsky and a career that includes a five-year (1993-98) stint as the singer and violinist for Höyry-kone, a Finnish prog-rock group. With influences ranging from Gregorian chants to King Crimson, the band produced a distinctive sound fronted by Lehtipuu’s clear, crystalline vocals.

McFarlane, 59, was born in West Virginia. He started his music career playing blues and rock on electric guitar before turning to classical studies and, in 1978, devoting himself full-time to the practice and study of the lute. He joined the Baltimore Consort in 1979, and spent 11 years (1984-1995) teaching at the Peabody Institute. With more than two dozen recordings, including Indigo Road, a 2009 Grammy nominee for Best Classical Crossover Album, McFarlane has arguably done more than anyone in the country to bring his Renaissance instrument back into the musical mainstream.

McFarlane still uses a lot of contemporary guitar-playing technique, from the way he fingers the strings to the drop of his hand from the fretboard. His style and approach are also strikingly modern, especially his work with other players in the ensemble, which is like watching the lead guitarist in a smart rock or jazz band. McFarlane clearly relishes the technical challenges of his 16-string instrument – the more notes, and the more complicated they are, the happier he seems. But it’s the sound that caught and held his attention, he says in an essay on his website – the wide palette of tonal colors, and the possibilities the lute offers for fusing popular and classical music.

Friday night’s “Intimate Vivaldi” program opened with a razor-sharp concerto (RV 114) by a five-piece Apollo’s Fire ensemble, with McFarlane sitting in on continuo. The next piece, a trio (RV 85), featured some tight and impressive work by McFarlane and diminutive violinist Johanna Novom. A sonata by Giovanni Zamboni (No. 9 in C minor) gave McFarlane a chance to play solo, and in his hands the music took on a warm, almost Spanish flavor. The concluding piece of the first half was perhaps the most interesting of the evening – Sonata concertata X, libro II by Dario Castello, a daring 17th-century composer whose work still sounds radical today, with its alternating leads, complementary chords and varying tempos. The quintet did a fine job with it, playing with characteristic energy and verve.

Highlights of the second half included a bracing violin duet by Novom and Olivier Brault in a capricio by Biagio Marini; a brief and finely executed slice of Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto from The Four Seasons by Brault; and a lively finale, Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major (RV 93), which featured precision string work by Novom, Brault and violist Kristen Linfante.

The performance was the first in a new series of “Fireside Concerts” that Apollo’s Fire is staging in a more intimate, casual atmosphere. In practice, this means that between songs the musicians chat up the audience, which is then invited to join them at a reception afterward. It’s a heartwarming innovation, particularly on a cold winter’s night. But some of the players have more to say than others. McFarlane can talk forever about his lute, but when cellist René Schiffer’s turn came, he stood up, confessed “I have nothing to say,” and sat down. This did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the chattering crowd that filled the reception hall.

Of more interest to this critic was the resonance between the setting and music: the sprawling faux-Gothic architecture of St. Paul’s, and the New World style of Baroque. Particularly after hearing it in Prague, the differences between the American and European approaches were striking. The Old World sound is elegant and refined, spirited but stately, much closer to its origins in churches and royal courts. The New World sound is bright and polished, distinctly more uptempo and bursting with the optimism that characterizes American music.

But both styles, it seems, can accommodate reformed rock ’n’ rollers.

For more on Ronn McFarlane: www.ronnmcfarlane.com

For more on Apollo’s Fire: www.apollosfire.org

For more on Topi Lehtipuu: http://topilehtipuu.com

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
January 30

A class act sets the tone for a new performance space.

It’s another one of those moments,” CMA Director David Franklin told the capacity crowd that turned out to hear Chanticleer, the stylish male chorus from San Francisco, on Wednesday night.

Milestones have become almost routine at the museum these days, as longstanding construction walls come down, new galleries open up, and a soaring atrium linking them all together has added a breathtaking public space. The Chanticleer concert marked the first live music performance in the atrium, framed appropriately by the renovated Renaissance and Islamic galleries behind the stage, and the high-tech Gallery One in front of it.

Chanticleer’s program offered a similarly sweeping historical perspective, starting with 16th-century Italian madrigals by composers like Andrea Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, and ending with a sampling of American blues (Tom Waits’ “Temptation”) and gospel music. Organized around a theme of siren calls and seduction, the program ranged through Central European, British and American classical works, traditional songs from Ireland and Japan, a generous sampling of contemporary music, and several pieces composed specifically for the ensemble.

Chanticleer is a dynamic choir, which is to say that it doesn’t set up in standard formation (highest voices to lowest) and project directly out to the audience. Instead, the members constantly rearrange themselves in configurations best-suited to the vocal needs of the piece – single or double lines, a tight half-circle, a loose group behind one or two feature vocalists. And because the singers cue off each other, they spend as much time interacting among themselves as they do looking at the audience. In that sense, they’re more like watching a jazz band or chamber music group at work than a conventional chorus.

At least in this appearance, the high voices – three sopranos, three altos – were strikingly stronger than the bass and baritones, which almost disappeared at times. Which is not to disparage the quality of the individual voices; almost every singer had a solo moment, and in those they were uniformly strong. But the clarity of the countertenors on selections like Carlo Gesualdo’s “Luci serene e chiare” and Mahler’s “Erinnerung” made it easy to forget the low voices onstage.

Even in a wide-open space like the atrium, the rich harmonies and polyphonic complexities of the Italian pieces were dazzling, conjuring up visions of Renaissance theaters and churches like San Marco (St. Mark’s) Basilica in Venice, where Gabrieli and Monteverdi held sway. Following those, selections from Grieg, Elgar and Barber seemed almost monochromatic – rendered with careful attention to detail, but sleepy by comparison.

Musically, the most interesting pieces of the evening were the contemporary ones. The first half closed with excerpts from American composer Mason Bates’ song cycle Sirens, in which the chorus conjured up the sounds and rhythms of lapping waves, and Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s captivating Canticum calamitatis maritimae, inspired by the tragedy of the cruise ship Estonia, which sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994, taking 852 passengers and crew with it. The work opens with rhythmic breathing and whispers, as if ghostly voices are recounting the story, and blossoms into a modern requiem with chanting and funeral dirges. The singers took full advantage of its shifting colors and moods to showcase their range and versatility.

Works written and arranged by Irish composer Michael McGlynn were less interesting, and Chen Yi’s original “I Hear the Siren’s Call” and Osamu Shimizu’s arrangement of the traditional Japanese fishermen’s song “Sohran Bushi” were mostly charming in invoking their ethnic heritage. But overall the program was striking in its intelligence and variety, and the singing impressive in its professional caliber.

The sound was good close to the stage, where the audience could see the singers work off each other and hear the careful subtleties and intonations in their voices. But that was lost as one moved further away, even with discreet microphones feeding hanging columns of speakers. By the time listeners reached the second-floor seats overlooking the atrium, the sound was like a wall, solid but without much detail or definition.

Figuring out the acoustics of the atrium, and what kind of music works best there, will be an ongoing process. Otherwise the concert was a satisfying christening, with an enthusiastic audience and performers who clearly felt the same way generating the kind of excitement that has become de rigueur at Cleveland’s cultural cornerstone these days.

For more on Chanticleer: www.chanticleer.org

For more on CMA: www.clevelandart.org

CMA photo by Lucian Bartosik