Seen and Heard International
Stravinsky, Dahl, Debussy, Mozart:
Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Werner-Möst, conductor, Davies
Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 3 June 2005 (HS)
Widely regarded as one of America's premier ensembles, the Cleveland
Orchestra nearly filled San Francisco's Davies Hall in three concerts
on its western-U.S. swing. I heard the second of the three, featuring
music that amply demonstrated the sheen of the orchestra's sound.
But something was lacking. Everything was soft around the edges,
a sort of remoteness or detachment from the music that left it
feeling lifeless at times, despite the lovely sounds emanating
from the stage.
Welser-Möst, who conducted the London Philharmonic in the
1990s, has been leading the Cleveland Orchestra since 2002. This
is an orchestra whose past leaders have included George Szell,
Artur Rodzinski and Erich Leinsdorff. Christophe von Dohnanyí
was music director from 1984 to 2002. It may not be fair to judge
after one performance, but there was absolutely nothing about
Welser-Möst's work in this concert that stamped him as a
worthy successor. Whatever joys there were to be had came from
the artistry of the individual musicians.
The concert opened with Dumbarton Oaks, Igor Stravinsky's
witty, vigorous paean to Bach's Brandenberg concertos. The wind
players were uniformly dazzling, but the strings took a flaccid
approach to Stravinsky's pungent rhythms, underplaying any and
all dynamic contrasts, leaving the piece feeling limp overall.
Things got better with Ingolf Dahl's saxophone concerto, played
with astonishing virtuosity by alto saxophonist Joseph Luloff.
The brassy orchestration (no strings except for basses) made the
piece feel big and important, even if the pastiche of jazzy riffs
and neo-Romantic rumblings (reminiscent of Hindemith) rolled along
without much direction. There may be a musical thread in this
bombast, but Welser-Möst didn't find it.
After intermission came Nuages from
Claude Debussy's Nocturnes. Again, dynamics tended toward the
middle range, never getting hushed enough to feel magical, nor
broadening out into anything glorious. There was no tension in
this music, just a soft carpet of string sound that was rich and
plush. The highlight was the longing, yearning English horn solo
by Robert Walters, which should have melted anyone's heart.
The concluding piece, Mozart's Symphony No. 36 "Linz,"
came off with a certain amount of grace but none of the rhythmic
vibrancy, detailed phrasing or dynamic contrast that might have
made it something more than an easy-listening romp through a familiar
And then it was 9:45 and the concert was over, warmly received
by an audience that appreciated the gorgeous sound of this ensemble.
Ungenerously, despite four curtain calls and the short one-hour
40-minute duration of the program, there were no encores.
Clearly, the Cleveland is still a fabulous assemblage of top-flight
musicians. They seem dedicated and ready to respond to anything
a great conductor could ask them to do, if they get one.