Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Blossom Music Center
August 4

Slick with the baton, quick with a quip.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a stand-up comedian had taken the podium at Blossom on Sunday night. British conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey has a nifty resume and a nice touch with the baton, but what he really excels at is one-liners. The kind that would fit neatly into his side gigs as a jazz pianist, or go over big in a group of musicians.

Like the jibes at violists – always the butt of orchestra jokes, for reasons only the players understand – that Tovey reeled off after the opening piece, Prelude and Fugue: The Spitfire, a musical homage to the World War II fighter plane. What’s the difference between a viola and a Spitfire? One is a thing of grace and beauty. Or: You can tune a Spitfire.

There were more, but you get the idea.

This sort of banter goes over well with the summer set, and Tovey’s chatty demeanor was a good fit with the first half of the program, which opened with The Spitfire suite. Created as a film score by British composer William Walton in 1942, it was later reworked into a concert piece brimming with patriotic fervor. Or at least what passes for fervor among the Brits.

To American ears, the music was less stirring, invoking mostly opening and closing credits and a noisy scene in an airplane factory. Tovey gave the piece a regal bearing and pleasant gloss, but otherwise there wasn’t much to recommend it, other than as a bit of British arcana delivered with aplomb by a British conductor. This was the first time the Cleveland Orchestra performed Spitfire, and at least for the foreseeable future, likely the last.

Of more interest was another inaugural performance by the orchestra – the second piece, Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto (Op. 22). As Tovey noted in a lengthy introduction, aside from his 1936 Adagio for Strings, Barber’s music does not get played much. It’s a puzzle why, since the American composer was highly regarded during his lifetime (1910 – 1981), winning two Pulitzer Prizes for his work. A dearth of memorable melodies may have something to do with it. But Tovey probably nailed the main reason in his description of Barber’s Cello Concerto: “It’s really difficult to play.”

A strong showing.
That was evident from the first bars of the opening movement, a seemingly random series of intonations and phrases erupting from different parts of the orchestra in a wonderfully inventive structure that led organically to the soloist, Mark Kosower, the orchestra’s principal cellist. Kosower was very good, showing command of a complicated part played completely from memory, and running through a full inventory of techniques, from sharp pizzicato to warm, emotional lines in the lower register played against the orchestra’s high-gloss violins.

According to Tovey, Barber had finished the concerto when he got word of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, whereupon he tore up the third movement and completely rewrote it. That might account for its more somber tone, new themes, feelings of anxiety and notes of distress. Kosower rose to technical challenges that grew increasingly conplicated, and Tovey drew an equally sophisticated performance from the orchestra, keeping the sound clean and balanced. In all, it was an impressive and satisfying presentation of a piece that deserves to be heard more often.

The second half brought what everyone came to hear: The Planets, written by the British composer with the Germanic name, Gustav Holst. Tovey joked that he “never came across anyone in England who knows anything about space,” and noted that the source of the composer’s inspiration was astrological, not astronomical. Nonetheless, Holst created evocative portraits of seven planets that have become an orchestral staple.

Tovey offered a comparatively controlled reading of the piece, never quite hitting the maelstrom that characterizes more adventurous versions of “Mars” and “Uranus,” and employing rhythms that came alarmingly close to oom-pah-pah in “Jupiter.” His skill lies mainly in his craftsmanship, and there were some truly fine moments of that – elegant, luminous strings in “Venus,” aching chords and a subtle internal vibration in “Saturn,” and a vivid, shimmering “Neptune” that provided a transcendent close.

After a heady night of rockets and airplanes, where did that leave Barber? As the most interesting composer on the program. Here’s hoping the orchestra brings him back soon.

For more on Bramwell Tovey:

Mark Kosower photo by Hyun Kang

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