Cleveland's stellar orchestra takes a detour to D.C.

Critic's Corner//Music

Music column

October 10, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

That America produces great symphonic ensembles has long been demonstrable all across the country. But even with so much talent out there, there's something about the Cleveland Orchestra that separates it from the rest, even from the best.

A combination of exceptional technical polish and artistic sensitivity characterize this ensemble, honed over the past 88 years by a stellar list of music directors that includes Artur Rodzinski, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnanyi and, above all (and for the longest period), George Szell.

The podium is currently in the hands of Franz Welser-Most, the Austrian-born conductor who led the Clevelanders in a calling-card kind of program Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, presented by the ever-classy Washington Performing Arts Society.

There was a slice of Viennese classicism, Mozart's Symphony No. 38 (nicknamed "Prague," where it premiered); a helping of Czech romanticism, Dvorak's underperformed Symphony No. 5; and a masterwork of French tone-painting, Debussy's La Mer.

Such a repertoire sampling offered plenty of opportunities to get the measure of orchestra and conductor.

For his part, Welser-Most, a man of restrained gesture, revealed a particular concern for what is called the singing line, a way of shaping even the smallest of phrases with the natural breathing and tonal concentration of a good vocalist. This emphasis could be heard to especially telling effect in the Mozart and Dvorak symphonies, where the lyricism never quit.

The conductor's equally strong interest in getting a chamber music-like transparency and intercommunication from the orchestra also paid off in both works. The Mozart symphony flowed gently, lovingly, its myriad details emerging with remarkable clarity.

Dvorak's Fifth deserves to be better known. The craftsmanship is high; the melodic content substantive. There's also a fair amount of drama, which Welser-Most did not always unleash fully. (The closing measures of the finale, in particular, could have used a real whomp.) If he let the momentum sag here and there, taking perhaps too much time to admire the sonic view, there was much to savor in his affectionate approach to the colorful music.

And aside from some fraying when the violins moved into high and soft territory, the ensemble responded with well-oiled precision and superbly stylish phrasing. The woodwinds were a deliciously prismatic presence throughout.

As for Debussy's evocation of the sea, Welser-Most seemed intent on getting back to dry land. The interpretation could have used a shade more atmosphere, nuance and, in places, breathing room. But the performance certainly had a sweeping power, and the orchestra was once again in brilliant, supple, enviable form.

BSO series at UB

The newest addition to Baltimore's concert venues, the University of Baltimore Student Center Performing Arts Theater, is a straightforward, attractive 200-seat hall. Although officially unveiled in April, it is getting its first steady workout this season with various events, including the BSO Musician Series that debuted Saturday night.

Given that many Baltimore Symphony Orchestra players already play chamber music each year around the area, and often for free, I would not have been surprised by a modest turnout for this ticketed concert. But the place was nearly full for a meaty, surefire program of Schubert's String Quintet in C major and Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, both delivered with impressive warmth and cohesiveness.

The room sounded richer, more in-your-face (in the best possible way) than it had during the inaugural performance by the Beaux Arts Trio in April. From my spot close to the rear of the theater, the instruments came through clearly, palpably.

During the Brahms piece, with the piano lid up, there was no balance issue; everything blended smoothly. There's still a bit of the electrical hum that intruded last spring, but it has been considerably reduced.

Madeline Adkins, in the first violin chair for the Schubert quintet, had some intonation slippage but offered dynamic phrasing that was strongly matched by second violinist Jonathan Carney, cellists Ilya Finkelshteyn and Kristin Ostling, and violist Peter Minkler (coordinator of the UB series).

Carney (now on first violin), Adkins, Finkelshteyn and Minkler were joined in the Brahms work by fine pianist Lura Johnson-Lee.

The BSO Musicians Series continues at UB with music by Takemitsu, Britten, Debussy and Dvorak on Oct. 28; Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms on March 24; and Brahms, Dohnanyi and Schoenberg on May 5. For more information, call 410-837-5420 or visit

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