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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Concert Review: Treachery, Faith and the Great River

The Cleveland Orchestra sails into Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
White tie and tails: Franz Welser-Möst.
Photo by Michael Pöhn for IMG Artists
The River Danube flows through southeastern Europe for 1,780 miles, from its source in Germany down into the Black Sea. It has captured the imagination of composers for centuries, who have used its waters as the inspiration for their art. On Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director Franz Welser-Möst gave the first New York performance of Stromab by the young Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud alongside the autumnal and always challenging Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler.



Mr. Staud's work, part of Carnegie Hall's current commissioning project, draws inspiration from The Willows, a 1907 novella by the British writer Algernon Blackwood. (That date puts it close to the creation of Mahler's Ninth in the summer of 1909 but I can't imagine any other more direct connection.) Drawing on the same Gothic style that inspired Edgard Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, this is the story of a Danube canoeing excursion gone horribly wrong, and about the terrifying experience of two boatmen seeking refuge on a pristine and mysterious island in the middle of the great river. Mr. Staud, however is quick to point out that his work is not program music but an attempt to capture the fear, paranoia and tension of this situation.

Although estimated at 15 minutes in the program book, Stromab (the title means "Downstream") ran somewhat longer, showing the skilled orchestration and innovative groupings of musical voices that are the hallmark of a promising modern composer. Exotic percussion was deployed throughout, with Chinese gongs on one side of the stage answered by two sets of deep orchestra bells and a set of heavy, suspended brass plates that added to the eerie atmosphere. The first half of the work also has a taxing and eloquent soliloquy for the solo tuba, and that player was the first to be singled out for praise by Mr. Welser-Möst at the conclusion of the work.

However, one wished that this ebullient composer would have confined himself to the eerie buildup of tempo and dynamic that made the first half of this work so exciting. Like the great river's windings, the second half of this expansive poem seemed to wander thematically and stylistically, with inexplicable forays into jazz and a catholic approach that made use of every water source including the kitchen sink. Still, Mr. Staud is a promising new voice and one could not but marvel at the alacrity and clarity of purpose that Mr. Welser-Möst and his troops showed in presenting this challenging new work.

The conductor waited for absolute silence in Carnegie Hall (not always easy) before beginning the slow, mournful procession of the first movement of the Mahler Ninth. This Andante comodo (the tempo marking literally means "a comfortable walk") moved forward at a stately but determined pace, as Mr. Welser-Möst led his players over the peaks and valleys of Mahler's anguished emotional landscape. The movement played here like a kind of great concerto for orchestra, placing considerable demands on the members of the woodwinds and brass section before turning the theme back to the gentle weavings of the strings.

A kind of peace settled over the nostalgic dance movement, with Mr. Welser-Möst and his players choosing sentiment over satire. That made the impact of the following Rondo-Burleske even heavier, with its wry figurations and whipsnap tempos putting extraordinary demands on the orchestra and its leader. The music ducked, dove, bobbed and wove, anything to escape the awful fate that awaited the work's protagonist--the composer himself. The orchestra brought a remarkable clarity to this difficult music, with each individual player proving his or her quality in key passages.

This left only the Adagio finale--maybe not the most celebrated slow movement in the Mahler canon but the one that holds audiences to be on their best behavior. After all, it is the last movement of the last symphony that Mahler actually completed before dying in 1911.) It is a slow, reluctant fadeout, where the themes from the previous fast movement are taken and examined before being set in neat, velvet-lined cases for the next conductor. Mr. Welser-Möst chose forward motion over nostalgia in this movement, playing this music of acceptance and grief with a sense of profundity and the most serious mien. By choosing momentum instead of sentiment, he produced a performance that went very well with the preceding work by Straud: a deeply meaningful and potent Mahler Ninth.

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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.