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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Concert Review: Cleveland Orchestra: A Hero Falls at Carnegie Hall

Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Pete Checchia © 2006 The Cleveland Orchestra
The Cleveland Orchestra arrived at Carnegie Hall on Friday night with a program featuring the New York premiere of Woven Dreams, a new work by Japanese composer Toshio Hosakawa. It was bookended by sturdy 20th century works by Debussy and Richard Strauss, under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst.

The evening opened with a shimmering account of the Prelude a les apres-midi d'un Faune. Mr. Welser-Möst led this familiar Debussy work with a quicksilver pace and great clarity of texture. This bright to light some fresh aural treasures hidden by the composer, including a subtle Wagner quotation in the final bars. The orchestra played with languid ease in the opening phrases for solo flute and winds, riding the waves of Debussy's score to a surging, impressive climax.

Mr. Hosakawa's work bore some resemblance to the Debussy. It too starts from a soft, almost murmuring figure, evoking the bliss of the unborn child in his mother's womb. The rest of the orchestra intrudes on that simple warmth, as winds, brass and percussion evoke the awakening of the senses and the first response to outside stimulus. Traditional Japanese themes and rhythms, drawn from gegaku music, build slowly as the work develops. The work's climax is a mighty birth: as the full wash of sound breaks forth, the child is born.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) is one of Strauss' autobiographical tone poems. It casts the composer as a mythic hero grappling with forces out to destroy him (the critics) and those he cannot conquer (his wife.) Mr. Welser-Möst charged into the breach with the opening of The Hero, taking a fast tempo and urging the orchestra through the work's first movement. This approach obscured much of the detail of Strauss' score, as the brass and percussion crashed headlong in an attempt to keep up with the maestro's furious pace.

Things improved considerably with The Hero's Adversaries--where music critics are depicted as squabbling woodwinds--and The Hero's Companion, a tender movement dedicated to Pauline Strauss. This is effectively a miniature violin concerto hidden within the larger tone-poem. Concertmaster William Preucil played the violin soliloquy with warmth and passion, and the entire orchestra eased back to a more moderate tempo.

The maestro hit the orchestral overdrive for The Hero's Battlefield reducing Strauss' mock combat to an ugly clash of percussion and brass. The orchestra stopped and started, lurching to a halt in the pauses and taking too long to recover its momentum. In the final sections of the piece, (with the familiar self-quotes from Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra) peace broke out at last, and the whole came to a close in a series of thunderous chords.

Redemption for this aggressive Heldenleben came in the form of the encore: an orchestral transcription of Traumerei, an early Strauss work for the piano. This was played with dignity and grace, producing a hushed effect that recalled the opening Debussy piece.

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