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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


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 piece.

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.

Harvey Steiman

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)