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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Concert Review: Don't Let Them Be Misunderstood

The Cleveland Orchestra returns to Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall.
Photo by Stephanie Berger for the Cleveland Orchestra © 2008.
Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra have been absent from Lincoln Center since 2008 when they presented a five-day festival pairing the symphonies of Anton Bruckner with music by John Adams. On Monday night, conductor and orchestra returned to Lincoln Center for another combination of classical and modern composers: in this case Ludwig van Beethoven and Olivier Messiaen. This unusual, but effective pairing was a major concert of this year's White Light Festival, the performing arts center's annual Fall exploration of the numinous in the lively arts.

The name "Olivier Messiaen" can induce sweat on the brows of the most hardened concert subscriber. But the Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine, ("Three Small Liturgies on the Divine Presence") are among the French composer's least threatening creations. Set to the composer's own devotional texts and reflecting on his Catholic faith, these works are modest in length, written for string orchestra, tuned percussion, piano, women's voices and that peculiar French electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot. (In Messiaen's musical vocabulary, the ondes almost always signals the presence of God.)

The opening Antiphon proved spidery and delicate, with lyric passages for the women's choir given supple support by the Cleveland strings. These were answered with outbursts from  piano soloist Joela Jones (playing transcribed bird-songs, a Messiaen trademark) and the ondes, played by soloist Cynthia Miller. The second movement proved more aggressive, with a Sequence interrupted by a repeated devotional refrain.

In the Psalmodie, Messiaen goes back to the forms used in medieval chant and polyphony to create a complex finale. A driving, pounding ostinato propels the text forward, answered by the return of the refrain-theme from the previous movement. The players hammered out a complex rhythm, sounding like a telegraph line connecting directly to heaven. Finally, the choir merged with the ondes, ending the work in a state of zealous contemplation, and leaving the audience in a state of bliss.


In his last works, Beethoven, like countless composers before him, used the rigors of polyphony to express the inexpressible. The Große Fuge, originally created as the finale for his Op. 130 string quartet (and presented here in a five-part transcription for string orchestra) is one of his least understood creations, secular in form but devout in its expression of anguish through complex musical form and dissonant intervals. This is stormy, at times excruciating music, a crie de coeur from the last years of the composer's life. The Cleveland strings bit cleanly into the complex texture, tossing melodic ideas back and forth in the opening figures and then creating a propulsive, hard-driven performance of the main fugue itself.

The Mass in C is from the composer's middle ("heroic") period, but it is also a misunderstood and little-performed example of Beethoven's religious music. (Its patron summarily rejected the work, drawing the composer's everlasting wrath) Armed with a strong quartet of soloists and the full weight of the all-volunteer Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Mr. Welser-Möst made a good case for this Mass as a burly, broad-shouldered expression of faith.

Chorus and soloists were clearly the stars here, as the hushed opening of the Kyrie swelled to a great and powerful climax. This increase of tension detonated in the opening forte of the Gloria, while the complex Latin text of the Credo held no terrors for conductor, orchestra and chorus. Mr. Welser-Möst conducted this religious text with dramatic instinct, leaving room for his soloists (soprano Luba Orgonášová, mezzo Kelley O'Connor, tenor Herbert Lippert and bass Ruben Drole) to express the text with pure, powerful tones.

Just as the Catholic service turns inward in its second half, so does the tone of Beethoven's Mass temper itself in the second half of this work. The great shout of the Sanctus gave way to the glowing tones of the Benedictus, with the composer's economical orchestration played with the warm, burnished clarity that is a trademark of this orchestra. The final Agnus Dei ends the work on a contemplative note, with a hushed plea for peace that seemed to float in the air of the concert hall.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.