Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall: Brahms, Shostakovich, and Saariaho
The Cleveland Orchestra’s program Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall was a mix of conservative and bold choices, as evidenced by a stodgy Brahms classic on the first half juxtaposed with Shostakovich’s most enigmatic symphonic statement and the New York premiere of a brilliant work by the Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho.
Saariaho has received a lot of exposure this season, thanks to her position as Carnegie Hall’s latest Composer-in-Residence. Given her twilit homeland, her music is exotic and dark—fusing aggressive orchestral passages, exotic percussion, and sensuous strings. Laterna magica, a 2008 work that takes its name from an Ingmar Bergman biography and the first machine to create a moving image, was expansive and rich in color.
Although her music can tend to skew on the cerebral side, there was a clear-cut form to this work, which used extensive percussion—comprising vibraphone, tubular bells, pitched gongs, and sawed cymbal throughout. The effect was devastatingly beautiful and atmospheric, with large cosmic swells emanating from the string body. A master of texture, there were many moments of woodwind flourishes supported by plucked strings against a tapestry of keyed percussion and harp. Adding to the piece’s shadowy demeanor were several passages of whispers spoken into woodwind instruments at different pitch levels, including repetitions of “light” (“licht”), sounding like a distant plea to the darkness at hand.
Unfortunately, the first half of the program didn’t fare as well: What was supposed to be a powerhouse performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman didn’t take place, due to illness, replaced by an unfortunately anemic performance of the composer’s Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham. The Cleveland winds and strings were velvety and strong throughout, only serving to amplify Shaham’s thin and unfocused tone, especially in the upper register. His physical exuberance didn’t compensate for the lack of versatility either, and only became more distracting as he hopped around—at times, looking like he was going to jump up and join conductor Franz Welser-Möst on the podium.
Closing the evening was Shotakovich’s Sixth Symphony, one of his most bizarre formal compositions: a morose and bleak 20-minute Adagio followed by two fleeting and sardonic scherzos. Coming on the heels of the composer’s Fifth Symphony—a piece noted for receiving both public and government praise, placing Shostakovich back in Stalin’s good graces—many expected the new symphony to make an equally bold statement. But once again, the Russian threw a curveball, constructing two short movements that work as afterthoughts, appearing as “forced” expressions of happiness and patriotism. As the symphony steers to its close, the music purposefully becomes increasingly asinine and circus-like, a complete mockery of the government’s rejection of creativity and formalism. With many ferocious moments to maneuver, the orchestra executed each one with staggering virtuosity.
The opening Adagio is the emotional core of the work, relying on the rich timbre of Cleveland’s cellos, violas, and low woodwinds. At the center is a devastating quasi-cadenza for the principal flute—brilliantly played by Joshua Smith—full of sighing motives, arabesques, and shivering trills. A technique Shostakovich used nowhere else in his symphonic output, the flute cadenza is a lonely voice, accompanied only by a pedal tone in the contrabassoon, basses, and harp, punctuated by a stroke of the gong. Out of the many full-orchestra moments, the solo flute speaks to the personal pain of the Russian individual, perfectly mirroring Shostakovich’s own isolated voice.
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