Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Severance Hall
February 28

A conductor who knows his orchestra.

There was barely room on the Severance stage this past weekend for Music Director Laureate Christoph von Dohnányi to make his way to the podium. A bank of nine percussionists across the rear wall fortified a sea of brass, woodwind and string players who seemed for a vertiginous moment to have reversed the natural musical order, with the bass and cellos packed on the left and two pianos, a celesta and two harps clumped on the right.

This is what one may expect when Mahler is on the bill, along with a direct descendant: Hans Werner Henze, a 20th-century German composer who looked to Mahler for inspiration in composing his opera The Bassarids. Von Dohnányi, who conducted the world premiere of the work at the Salzburg Festival in 1966, paired a suite from the opera with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for his guest appearance at Severance this season.

It was at von Dohnányi’s request that Henze, who died just four months ago, excerpted an Adagio, Fugue and the wild “Dance of the Maenads” from The Bassarids in 2005 and wove them into an orchestral piece for concert performance. The result is a mosaic of vivid intensity, multilayered with abrupt shifts in texture and volume, from solo instruments standing in for voices to full orchestral outbursts. Hearing the work for the first time is like sampling a musical stew, with a dizzying array of sounds thrown into what often seems like a chaotic mix.

So it was remarkable to hear the clarity that von Dohnányi brought to the piece. With countermelodies constantly simmering below the surface, and broken narrative lines rising and falling with sharp prompts from the percussion, keyboards and brass, simply maintaining a cohesive sound is an accomplishment. Von Dohnányi rendered it with both depth and transparency, aided in no small part by precision work from the players. The conductor singled out the horns and percussion for special acknowledgment; this critic also appreciated crisp work from the bassoons and first piano. But those were just the obvious highlights of a technically brilliant performance from both conductor and orchestra.

By comparison the Mahler symphony seemed almost straightforward, which is not how one typically describes a work considered so radical when it premiered in 1889 that the composer labeled it a “symphonic poem in two parts.” Von Dohnányi opened it delicately, carefully modulating the signature phrase in the woodwinds and offstage trumpets before introducing warm, full strings to raise the volume and tone just short of exuberant. He kept the first movement understated until the explosion of horns and percussion in the closing bars, leaving room for sparkling subtleties in the woodwinds.

The melodic second movement was also carefully crafted, with von Dohnányi maintaining a meticulous balance in the sound and drawing rich colors from the horns. He gave the third movement, with its repeating “Frère Jacques” theme, a brooding quality, invoking more of a funereal atmosphere than a childhood reverie. The slow tempo supported a sound so clear and refined that individual notes from the harp popped. It also allowed von Dohnányi to develop a fine contrast between the woodwinds and main theme in the cellos and bass. He kept the tempo restrained in the final movement as well, lingering over the lyrical passages and layering bright horns on top of driving strings to bring the piece to a thrilling finish.

In all, the performance was an impressive demonstration of what a conductor can do with an orchestra that he knows very well. Von Dohnányi played to the ensemble’s strengths: highly skilled individual players, exceptionally warm strings, a precise style and the marvelous acoustics of its home hall. The musicians clearly enjoyed the experience, applauding the conductor along with the audience. All reunions should be this good.

For more on Christoph von Dohnányi and his tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra: http://www.clevelandorchestra.com/about/dohnanyi-bio.aspx

Photo by Terry O'Neill

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