More interesting than me thinking that The Cleveland Orchestra was a “high performance engine” while listening to them render Beethoven’s 6th was principal guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero’s commenting to me after show that conducting TCO was like “driving a Ferrari.” Meaningful coincidence? You bet.
Before being blissfully implicated into Beethoven’s profound sound picture, two pieces were served up. “Of Flurries and Clarion” by University of Miami Frost student Peter Learn (benefiting from TCO’s education and outreach directive) was a world premier sextet, framed by a pleasant melody from the cello, materializing out of the seeming chaos created by a disjointed and atonal piano and clarinet, that kept poking through the soupy commotion, the piece remaining rhythmically disconnected, like a Dali painting, coagulating into a harmonious stretch until its satisfying final chord.The second piece, the first movement from the Violin Sonata in B minor by Ottorino Respighi, was a dark and romantic dance between a man and a woman, piano and violin respectivly -- the piano advancing, the violin relenting, the couple then dancing sweetly together. Intriguing was that the Violinist was male (Peter Otto) and the pianist, female (Joela Jones).
Beethoven, possibly driven by the spector of his deafness, was productively stunning in his mid 30's, premiering both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies together on the same bill at the Theater an der Wien in 1808 Vienna, the Symphonies played in reverse order. So the Sixth was played at the top of show at the Knight Concert Hall in the Arsht Center on March 23, 2012.
Names for symphonies were largely at the whimsy of patrons, critics and circumstance. Not only did Beethoven name his Sixth, "Pastoral," he titled its five movements as well, fashioning the signpost up ahead for composers over the next 200 years, licensing them to paint all manner of the landscape of nature and life in symphonic language. Witness the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo singing at the end of the second movement and the thunderbolts striking in the fourth as splendid examples of Beethoven empowering “instruments to convey the shape, sound and impressions of the real world.”
“Awakening of serene impressions on arriving in the country” opens more like a tap on the shoulder from a rustic friend joining you for a walk than an announcement that a symphony has begun. TCO enters cleanly in perfect tempo, a rich bottom launching crescendos, every nuance of this expansive country walk brought by this skilled 105 piece orchestra. Robust strings against the solo wind voices, bassoon, clarinet, flute evoking different animals along the way, give rise to the expanse to come. The “Scene by the Brookside” (second movement) is a glorious long glide past the woody birds on our way to the buoyant romp of the “Jolly gathering of country-folk,” featuring a text book example of syncopation voiced by the oboe and then by horn, dissolving as the brewing “Thunderstorm, Tempest” (seamlessly connecting the third and fifth movements in real time) moves in, still one of the most visual sounds ever. The storm starts with the clouds rolling in, the big drops of rain, the full blown storm, giving to the wonderful reverie as it passes (“Shepherd's Song: Gladsome and thankful feelings after the storm”), perhaps one of the most peaceful melodies ever to inhabit our ears, hopeful and heavenly. This orchestra moved so well together, down the lane in the same direction with great purpose, focus, and result. Beethoven did with music what poets do with words, TCO painting with expert brush.
A Grammy Award winning native of Nicaragua, Guerrero’s curly black hair, big smile and most expressive style cut a fitting figure in front of this world class, globe trotting legacy orchestra.
Venezuelan prodigy Gabriela Montero took the bench for the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor Opus 16. This pretty, hazel haired virtuoso was technically spot on with an uncommon command of the keyboard. Grieg rooted his concerto in classical form and imbued it with Norwegian flavor, Montero attacking this, arguably the most recognized opening in the entire piano concerto canon, with muscular intensity. The orchestra swelled and fell flawlessly with the piano as Montero delivered strength and tenderness with equal passion, her cadenza, as big and subtle as could be imagined, drew applause after the first movement (Allegro). The second (Adagio), marked by a delicate opening, exposed Montero’s softer side, in contrast to her sometimes overtly masculine approach in the first and third movements. She launched into The spirited third (Allegro), taking the ride with the mounting orchestra, delivering the full bodied Norwegian melodies, complete with tantalizing arpeggios and unabashed cadenzas, all the way to the splendid finish.
The 1924 Symphonic Poem, The Pines of Rome, by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, completed the evening’s program, challenging the very structure of the Knight Center. The four movements of this work depict different areas of ancient and modern Roman life, ranging from children playing to soldiers marching. “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” opens with a brisk and bright trumpet fanfare, remaining upbeat as children swarm, abruptly shifting to a quiet deep meditation in the “Pines Near a Catacomb". In “The Pines of the Janiculum” Respighi creates a contemporary atmosphere as solo piano emerges astride a solo clarinet with the group sustaining a melodic bottom. Dissonant yet harmonious strings add a layer and are soon laced with the song of a nightingale. (Hark, Beethoven!) A steady low march, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” bring the final movement, a “vision of Roman legions at the height of empire striding into Rome with the rising sun, gathering in full splendor at the Capitol.” At the last moment, six brass players (two trombones, four trumpets) emerged above the balcony behind the orchestra and shook the house.
After comparing TCO to driving a Ferrari, guerrerro said, “They are so disciplined--they breathe together, act together, phrase together as one.” He exuded such exhilaration and energy from behind that wheel that you could feel it from the audience. I did.