Sunday, April 28, 2013


First Baptist Church
April 27

Bright, effervescent takes on Haydn and Mozart.

It would not be quite correct to say that Apollo’s Fire saved the best for last in this season’s concert series. But it’s tempting, after seeing Amanda Forsythe sing with the ensemble in a closing program of opera arias and symphonic works by Haydn and Mozart.

Interestingly, Forsythe starts her professional bio with her 2007 European debut (at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy), skipping her training at the New England Conservatory of Music and early work in New England, where she was a vocal fellow at Tanglewood and regular performer with Boston Baroque. Over the past six years she has built an impressive career on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing at prestigious European venues such as Covent Garden and Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and with a variety of period ensembles in the U.S.

A delicate, graceful voice.
Forsythe’s lyrical soprano has been rightly praised for its agility and delicacy, and her style and delivery are well-suited for early music. She sings with grace and understated expression, relying on clarity and purity of tone to convey emotional impact. A hint of vulnerability in her voice adds passion and longing, and her technical skills are superb, as she had a chance to demonstrate in some challenging Mozart coloratura passages.

The first came in a pair of arias from the early opera Lucio Silla (1772). Forsythe started small and controlled with “Fra i pensieri più funesti,” using color and ornamentation to gradually build and carry the emotional swell to a dramatic finish. Her expression blossomed in “Parto, m’affretto,” with notes of anguish giving way to a burst of well-enunciated coloratura runs, notable for their precision and craftsmanship.

Forsythe seemed stronger and more self-assured after intermission, opening “Fra un dolce delirio” from Haydn’s L’Isola disabitata in fuller voice and hitting some beautiful crystalline high notes. Segueing immediately to the “Alleluia” from Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, she spun off another glittering series of coloratura lines that brought the audience to its feet. Her encore, “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro, was not as radiant, lovely in tone but less compelling in content.

The same might be said for much of the musical program, which opened with the overture to Mozart’s La Finta Semplice. Music Director Jeannette Sorrell conducted a full chamber orchestra with her usual flair, eliciting the light, airy sound that characterizes Apollo’s Fire. The frothy approach adds wonderful zest and energy to confections like the La Finta overture, but works less well in pieces like Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 (Mourning). Two selections from that called for dramatic notes and darker tones, which never got very dark. The ensemble is almost incessantly bright, and for these was not able to develop much contrast and depth until the final bars.

Haydn fared better in the second half, with a sturdy, even solemn rendering of the overture to L’Isola disabitata, paced by a measured tempo that added definition to the sound. Forsythe came back and left before the ensemble played the closing selection, Mozart’s Symphony No. 33. It seemed a bit anticlimactic after the singer’s encore, and an odd choice for the program, a relatively conservative work that reflects the composer’s unhappy situation in Salzburg. The piece started a bit choppy and never delved much below the surface, which was elegantly played but failed to develop any dynamics. 

The violins, however, were gorgeous, as they had been for most of the night. Whatever else the ensemble is or is not doing, Apollo’s Fire always features heavenly, heartfelt violins.

For more on Amanda Forsythe:

For updates on Apollo’s Fire:

Friday, April 26, 2013


Severance Hall
April 25

A dazzling performance caps a milestone season.

The program was Franz Welser-Möst’s, but the spotlight at Severance this weekend was on the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. The all-volunteer ensemble brought its 60th anniversary season to a rousing conclusion with a glorious performance of Haydn’s The Seasons.

Though it was established relatively late (at the “request” of Music Director George Szell), the chorus has a storied history, due in large part to conductor Robert Shaw. A noted choral specialist who served as Szell’s assistant for 10 seasons, Shaw took over the fledgling group in 1956 and molded it into one of the finest orchestra choruses in the country. His professional standards and personal charisma were such that after he left in 1967 to become music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, some members of the chorus followed him.

The fine job that current choral directors Robert Porco and Lisa Wong have done maintaining those standards was on effulgent display in The Seasons, an oratorio in which the chorus plays an unusually prominent role. Musically, the piece is more like an opera, with three soloists in lead roles and the chorus not just embellishing, but advancing the narrative. This opens up wonderful opportunities for expression, like a segment late in the final movement, “Winter,” when the chorus punctuates an amusing folk tale told by the soprano with reactions like “Ha, ha, that was a good one!” To hear that kind of sharp, spirited exchange from hundreds of voices was remarkable.

And the energy was overwhelming, approaching “Ode to Joy” intensity at times. The chorus started soft, with a hushed entry in the “Spring” movement that invoked the soft breezes in the lyrics. By the time of the “Summer” thunderstorm, the voices roared from the stage in great waves that lost nothing in clarity or transparency, despite their power. And it’s hard to think of another large vocal ensemble that can achieve the shimmering, golden glow the chorus created in the resplendent sunrise section of “Summer” and the finale of “Winter,” which transports listeners to a divine eternal spring.

The Seasons also plays to the orchestra’s instrumental strengths, in particular its trademark attention to detail. The piece is rightly famous for its many effects mimicking the lyrics, like a frog croaking or quail calling, and an extended section that paints a vivid picture of a stag hunt. But there are subtler touches throughout that Welser-Möst rendered with wit and grace, like glittering strings describing the “sparkling flow” of a brook, and a snaky oboe line bringing to life “a reviving sensation.” The conductor’s enthusiasm for the piece was obvious, and his ability to fill in a grand, sweeping canvas with so many small, colorful details was delightful.

The soloists were uniformly good, with baritone Luca Pisaroni making the strongest impression. His role is the weightiest in The Seasons, particularly in the closing ruminations on the meaning of life. Pisaroni’s warm tone and burnished timbre lent solemnity and carried direct emotional appeal. Malin Hartelius’ round soprano and Maximilian Schmitt’s high tenor were an elegant match, particularly in the love duets. And the trios were marvelous, a rare case of three voices fitting together so neatly that they became a unique fourth voice, seamless and captivating.

The Thursday performance was marred by an ugly moment in the opening movement when a cell phone went off with a harsh urban ringtone that seemed to go on forever before it was silenced. Welser-Möst was so upset that he turned to the audience between movements and asked everyone – irately but politely – to turn off their “equipment.” In a way, the faux pas offered a backhanded compliment: Had the spell the conductor wove not been so thoroughly absorbing and completely enchanting, the interruption would not have been nearly so irritating.

It left this critic wondering if perhaps the orchestra’s innovative and aggressive marketing efforts haven’t been too successful. In a perfect world, classical music should be available to everyone. But in some settings, maybe only for the people ready to hear it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Severance Hall
April 18

Rockin' out with Stradivarius and Shostakovich.

Music Director Franz Welser-Möst returned to the podium Thursday night looking agile and fit after a bout with a bad back. And the program opened with a world premiere, a commissioned work from Sean Shepherd, who is wrapping up a two-year fellowship with the orchestra.

But the real star of the show was Frank Peter Zimmermann, a German violinist who turned in a performance that would have earned him immediate entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was holding its 2013 induction ceremonies simultaneously on the West Coast.

The Shepherd piece was monumentally ambitious, a three-part work for a large orchestra based on iconic photos taken by Ansel Adams in the high wilds of Yosemite National Park. That area was once inhabited by Native Americans who may have been called the Tuolumne, which is what Shepherd titled his piece. In extensive program notes, he characterized it not as a description of the photos, but a reaction to them, an invocation of place and atmosphere.

Nevertheless, Tuolumne is a highly descriptive work, starting with a flurry of sharp flutes and other birdcalls, and gradually opening onto a vast landscape of noisy animals, dreamy meadows, rippling streams and towering peaks. Largely neo-classical, it balances the grandeur of the setting with whimsical moments that include some outright humor in the second movement, which features colorful effects like snickering horns and kick-in-the-pants percussion. The final movement becomes more solemn, even ominous in its use of big strings and brass.

Shepherd drew comparisons to Smetana and Mussorgsky in describing his conceptual framework, but Tuolumne seems more in the vein of Messiaen – reveling in the beauty of the natural world, mimicking its aural delights, and finishing in a state of spiritual uncertainty and yearning. For a 33 year-old composer, it is a surprisingly mature work that deserves to have a broader audience.

Zimmermann walked onstage with a stunning instrument in his hands – a 1711 Stradivarius once owned by Fritz Kreisler. Its deep, rich tone was perfect for Shostakovich’s Violin concerto No. 1, a protest as anguished as anything the composer wrote during a lifetime of railing against oppression. Zimmermann caught that mood immediately, though without the jagged edges that often characterize Shostakovich – at least to start. The violinist is a brilliant technician who makes even the most complicated passages sound fluid and look easy.

Zimmermann’s star turn came in the cadenza bridging the third and fourth movements, when he literally attacked his instrument, playing with such fierce intensity that it looked as if he would saw the violin in half with his bow. He threw his entire body into the passage, bending into raw, frenzied runs and stomping around the stage like a rock guitar player. It was a gripping interpretation, so skillful and distressed that it earned Zimmermann the rarest of accolades: The orchestra members didn’t just tap their bows when he finished – they put down their instruments and applauded.

Welser-Möst provided an appropriately dark but unusually subdued background that would have benefited from more fire at times, particularly in the menacing Passacaglia. In his hands, the orchestration sounded almost too polite, more magisterial than beleaguered. But no complaints about giving Zimmermann the spotlight, nor about the fine control and balance in the orchestra.

And Welser-Möst didn’t hold back for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, opening up the sound with bright brass, a light touch in the strings and a captivating lyrical sweep. The tempo was choppy at times in the middle movements, but they glowed with an array of colors, particularly in the woodwinds. The final movement started gently, building to full dynamics and an energetic finish without losing any of the conductor’s trademark transparency.

Although the symphony is 133 years old, it had historical resonance in this performance led by a Viennese conductor. The premiere was supposed to take place in Vienna in 1880, but when members of the Vienna Philharmonic objected, Dvořák took the piece back to Prague, where the Czech Philhamonic premiered it the following year. Coming full circle in the New World, this work is in the Cleveland Orchestra’s wheelhouse: Romantic, full-blooded and filled with exquisite detail. It made for a robust conclusion to a smart, stimulating program.

A video of Zimmermann performing Shostakovich’s Violin concerto No. 1 is posted online at:

Friday, April 19, 2013


Plymouth Church
April 16

A budding classical quartet with a taste for pop.

It was kids’ night out at this month’s Cleveland Chamber Music Society concert, with a boisterous student contingent whooping it up for the not much older Quatuor Ébène. The French quartet may not have been the most impressive ensemble in CCMS’s stellar lineup this season, but give them credit for bringing the most innovative program: Mozart, Mendelssohn and Jazz.

Founded in 1999, the quartet comes with solid classical credentials. They trained at the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt, studied with the Ysaÿe Quartet in Paris, racked up several awards and ventured beyond the French repertoire with recordings of Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Bartók. Yet it’s their crossover work that has drawn the most attention, and support. Guests on their 2011 release Fiction, covers of pop hits and film tracks, include Natalie Dessay, Fanny Ardant and Stacey Kent.

In performance the group has a dry, compact sound that favors the high end. It can be thin at times, like young wine – a clean finish, but not much body. Their playing is tight, though not always with the organic quality that characterizes the best quartet work. And their tempos have a disconcerting tendency to slow down or speed up, the latter sometimes robbing the music of depth and emotional impact. In short, a promising vintage that needs time to mature.

Mozart’s String quartet in C major (K465) showcased the group’s fine technical skills, especially in the quick turns of the third and fourth movements. Once past the famous “dissonant” opening, which they handled with solemn delicacy, the foursome gave the piece a lighthearted, even playful quality, with notable expression in the second movement. Otherwise, the music never developed much depth, zipping along a polished but thin surface.

The group seemed more comfortable with Mendelssohn’s String quartet No. 6 in F minor (Op. 80), opening with a blaze of energy that highlighted the light and dark tones of the first movement. There were some flashes of color and drama in the second movement, but it was played too fast to sustain any dramatic tension. The sound finally opened up in the final two movements, played with a passionate intensity led by first violinist Pierre Colombet.

The program after intermission was an amalgam of jazz and pop hits that blithely crossed decades and genres, with the only common denominator being songs that the group likes. These ranged from Erroll Garner’s “Misty” to the Beatles’ “Come Together,” spiced by unpredictable selections from movies as disparate as “Pulp Fiction” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” All were played in original arrangements, which were uniformly good; on paper, the group has great musical flair. In performance, some of the songs work, and some don’t.

The quartet did a fine job of capturing the sonorities of Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” but could manage only a wan version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.” And they would do better to avoid the Beatles altogether. Percussive touches lit up Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (from “Pulp Fiction”), as well as a closing Piazzolla tango. The group returned for an encore of “Someday My Prince Will Come” that featured a cappella breaks with surprisingly good four-part harmonies. The ensemble’s vocals, in fact, were better than some of their instrumental work in the second half.

Is it possible to play both classical and popular music very well? Others have tried, with equally spotty results. One of the jazz pieces Quatuor Ébène covered was Brad Mehldau’s “Unrequited,” which brought to mind a fall 2010 tour Mehldau did with Anne Sofie von Otter, the brilliant Swedish mezzo-soprano. Mehldau is a gifted pianist, but when he soloed on two Brahms caprices, he sounded like what he was – a jazz player not quite making a successful crossover to classical. And von Otter’s classical approach and phrasing were a poor fit with Joni Mitchell and the Beatles.

Still, the experimentation offered a refreshing break from standard classical fare. And to judge by the audience, Quatuor Ébène attracts a younger generation of fans that most chamber ensembles can only wish for. 


For more on Quatuor Ébène:

For more on the Brad Mehldau/Anne Sophie van Otter tour:

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Severance Hall
April 11

A witty and accomplished pinch-hit performance.

O Fortuna! The conductor is out with a bad back, whatever shall we do?

In the case of the orchestraʼs performances of Carmina Burana this weekend, the answer came surprisingly easily, and with exemplary results: Put Assistant Conductor James Feddeck on the podium.

As anyone who has heard the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra knows, it takes no back seat to its parent in either programming or playing. Under Feddeckʼs direction, the young ensemble (18 is the upper age limit) routinely turns in sharp, sophisticated performances, most recently at a March 10 concert that included a thoroughly professional treatment of Tchaikovskyʼs Symphony No. 5. And it was largely at Feddeckʼs urging that the ensemble mounted its first-ever international tour last summer, impressing audiences in Prague, Vienna and Salzburg.

Even under the best of circumstances Carmina Burana presents a formidable challenge, calling for a tight performance from a large orchestra, full chorus, childrenʼs chorus and three solo vocalists. With so much firepower onstage, the usual approach is to crank up the volume and let ʼer rip, trusting that the sheer spectacle and emotional grandeur of Carl Orffʼs overstuffed cantata will satiate the audience. There was plenty of that. But Feddeck showed that there can also be some artistry in the piece.

His fine touch was evident in the opener, Bachʼs Concerto in A major (BWV1055), which provided a gentle counterbalance in the programming and a rare solo opportunity for english horn player Robert Walters. The concerto has been performed for more than two centuries with a chamber orchestra and harpsichord soloist, but recent scholarship suggests that Bach originally wrote the solo parts for oboe dʼamore, a mid-range member of the oboe family. Walters showed expert facility with the instrument, caressing his lines and matching the graceful lilt that Feddeck drew from a 26-piece chamber ensemble.

The ensemble included a harpsichord, but that was only one element in the authentic early music sound that Feddeck created. Baroque is often played with a beat in the U.S., which gives it a modern cast. Feddeckʼs version was true to the period, measured and buoyant with an elegant flowing quality, the Old World sound gilded by light, sweet violins.

The big choral blast that opened Carmina Burana in the second half quickly gave way to the insistent rhythms that drive the piece, which in Feddeckʼs hands were comparatively muted and controlled – and better for it. That set the opening chords of the “Primo Vere” section in sharp relief, with soft choral work maintaining just the right tension throughout the repeating motif. A careful balance between the orchestra and chorus characterized the entire piece, giving it added depth and dimension, particularly in the Round Dance of the “Uf dem Anger” section and the soprano solos in the “Cour dʼAmours.”

Feddeckʼs craftsmanship was evident in many small details – solo woodwind lines of sparkling clarity, sharp cracks of percussion, and rich colors to augment the singers. The tenorʼs swan lament in the “In Taberna” section was like a clinic in the clever use of orchestration, with witty commentary from snarky horns, grumbling trombones and ominous gongs. There was even a touch of an oom-pah-pah band in the main tavern scene, with the male chorus roaring through the endless toasts and the percussion mimicking beer glasses slamming on the table.

The singers got in the spirit with perhaps too much mugging. Tenor Nicholas Phan drew titters of laughter fanning himself and collapsing from the heat of the oven, and baritone Stephen Powell managed to work a hiccup into a wobbly rendition of the abbotʼs drunken declamation. Soprano Rebecca Nelsenʼs histrionics occasionally overshadowed her lovely, agile voice, which took on a lustrous glow in the quickening emotions of “Cour dʼAmours.”

Feddeck invoked the gates of heaven with dramatic drums, horns and high volume for “Blanziflor et Helena,” then dropped to a slow simmer for the concluding return to “Fortuna,” building to a thundering finish that he conducted with two-handed sweeps of the baton, like a tennis player making a backhand smash. Fate is indeed a wild and fickle mistress, as Franz Welser-Möst can attest. But she smiled on his replacement, and the audience, this night.

Many performances of Carmina Burana are posted on YouTube. Hereʼs one conducted by Polish phenom Krzysztof Urbański:

Photo by Roger Mastrioanni

Monday, April 8, 2013


Ohio Theater
April 7

A rare combination of brains, beauty and talent.

Good music knows no genre boundaries, so an appearance by Esperanza Spalding prompted a trip to Playhouse Square on Sunday night. The preternaturally gifted bass player and singer-songwriter is currently touring with a big band, performing flashy arrangements of songs from her 2012 release Radio Music Society.

Like the CD, the show is pegged to a conceit: Spinning through the radio dial, occasionally a song pops up that can totally transform the mood of the moment or the cast of an entire day. The stage is set for this with a boom box facsimile fronting the bandstand, and tuning and static noises preceding Spalding’s entrance and musical introduction to the group – nine players on keyboards, guitar, drums and six horns, along with two backup vocalists.

With the first song, “Hold on Me,” the focus shifted to affairs of the heart, and the show spun out as a tight package of love songs held together by scripted patter from Spalding, usually in rhyming verse. Only someone with her charm and sex appeal could pull that off, though Spalding seemed to realize she was pushing the limits of the audience’s good graces, saying at one point, “I don’t want to burn you people out on my life stories.”

The music is what made it all work. Rotating between stand-up and electric bass, Spalding took only an occasional solo to show her jazz chops, which are considerable. For most of the night she set a groove with the rhythm section and let the horns carry the melody and solos, in dazzling arrangements that gave the performance a pop gloss, like a slick nightclub or Vegas act. The jazziest element throughout the show was Spalding’s singing, delivered mostly in a smart scat style that called to mind Ella Fitzgerald or even Sheila Jordan.

The performance could turn maudlin at times. After informing the audience that “We don’t just play, we can act, too,” Spalding had a lengthy vocal exchange with singer Chris Turner so nakedly confessional that it was almost operatic, especially with Leo Genovese supplying soap opera chords on the organ. But that eventually righted itself into a glowing version of “Black Gold,” featuring a soaring duet by Spalding and Turner and brilliant colors from the horns.

A perennial activist for social and environmental causes, Spalding paused at one point to plug the organization Earthjustice (“Did you know Mother Earth doesn’t even have a good lawyer?”), which is getting a cut of the CD sales on this tour. She then launched into a sharp, funky version of Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” that included a nifty trumpet solo by Ben MacDonald and gorgeous three-part harmonies by Spalding, Turner and Leala Cyr.

Cyr and Turner struck up a repeating refrain that carried the closing number, “Radio Song,” through a singalong and tasty drum solo by Lyndon Rochelle. The pop beat and flavor was burnished by some clever work in the horns simulating traffic noise. Spalding ended the evening on a jazz note, returning for an encore with just the drums, guitar and keyboards for a tight version of “I Know You Know” that gave her a chance to stretch her vocals.

While this was not a show for jazz purists (like this critic), it was an impressive performance by an artist who is a gifted player, talented singer and sophisticated bandleader. It’s rare to find that combination, much less a vision of how to package and present music that is intensely personal in both content and form, and make it accessible to a wide audience. More than anything, Esperanza demonstrated that at the tender age of 28, she can do whatever she wants and make it work.

For more on Esperanza Spalding:

Photo by WENN

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Severance Hall
April 4

No need for a conductor with Uchida at the keyboard.

Superstar pianist Mitsuko Uchida returned to Severance for an all-Mozart program this weekend, though it would not be quite correct to say that she played with the orchestra. Rather, the orchestra played with her. Leading the ensemble from the piano bench, Uchida made a convincing case for the synthesis that can be achieved between a soloist and a chamber orchestra, sans conductor.

After a stripped-down version of the orchestra (strings and woodwinds only) had taken their seats on Thursday night, Uchida strode onto the stage in a jade-green outfit covered by what appeared to be a clear plastic raincoat. A touch of Rei Kawakubo, perhaps? There was no time to wonder, as she promptly struck a light tone and nimble pace for Piano concerto No. 17 (K453), conducting briefly from a standing position before dropping into her seat to play.

The caliber of Uchida’s performances is never in question. She has brilliant command of a wide repertoire and an insightful, sensitive playing style that has garnered many awards, including a Grammy for a recording of two Mozart piano concertos (Nos. 23 & 24) with the Cleveland Orchestra. She is an intensely focused performer; there’s not a single note in her playing that seems less than deliberately, carefully crafted.

What’s striking about Uchida is, first, the European quality of her sound. In some ways, this isn’t surprising. She trained in Vienna, where she gave her first recital at the age of 14. Still, it’s breathtaking to hear such a perfect realization of Western music by an Eastern performer. The Japanese in particular are regarded as technically proficient but often emotionless players. If anything, Uchida can be overly expressive in her interpretation.

This was evident in her treatment of the second and third movements of the No. 17 concerto, which were filled with lingering phrases and dramatic pauses. It’s the keyboard equivalent of a breathy vocal style, dramatic and delicately balanced between tension and release. Pulling that off demands a deep understanding of the material, along with a vision of how to bring it to life.

A conductor would be an impediment to that vision, at least in Uchida’s world. Controlling the tempo and dynamics of the orchestra to a fine degree, she can come in after the slightest pause, increasing the dramatic effect, or pick up the piano line without missing a beat, helping build momentum and highlighting the interplay with the orchestra. It’s a fully integrated approach that enables Uchida to shape the entire piece and change it as she goes along, drawing out her solos, trading phrases playfully with the woodwinds, saving a burst of joy for the last few bars.

In Piano concerto No. 25 (K503) this translated into a glossy surface with deep undercurrents, lightened in passages like the piano solo in the first movement, where Uchida gave the thematic variations a mischievous sparkle. The atmosphere of understated elegance in the second movement extended even to her body language, with Uchida swaying in her seat as she conducted. She opened up the final movement for virtuoso runs on the keyboard and dazzling exchanges of phrases through the orchestra, finishing with a tight, dramatic flourish.

For all that, it was the orchestra’s string section that stole the show with a exquisite interlude between the concertos, the Divertimento in B flat major (K137). Deeply felt and beautifully played with a luxurious, silken sound, it captured the divine quality of Mozart’s music, its unique ability to make you laugh and cry all at once. Except for the cellos, the players stood rather than sat – an 18th-century convention, as the program book noted, that seemed to perk up the acoustics a bit, giving a 30-piece ensemble the clarity of a chamber quartet.

Or maybe that was just wishful listening on the part of this critic. When the Cleveland Orchestra plays Mozart, it’s hard not to get carried away.

For more on Mitsuko Uchida:

For more on Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo: