Cleveland Orchestra reveals another strong suit with deep all-Stravinsky program
Zachary Lewis
March 17, 2017

Re-add Stravinsky to the list of composers the Cleveland Orchestra plays really, really well.

Bruckner, Brahms, Mozart. These have been recent hallmarks. After the orchestra’s all-Stravinsky concert Thursday night at Severance Hall, however, it’s time to tack on another.

Not only was the program, a broad and eclectic survey of the composer’s metamorphic career, well-conceived. It was also well-executed. Each of its four works received from music director Franz Welser-Most a sterling performance attentive to the needs and unique character of the score. Too bad the house was so far from full.

Arguably the group’s smartest decision was hiring Seraphic Fire to join its first performance of Stravinsky’s “Threni: Lamentations of Jeremiah.” The six Miami-based vocalists who sang the solo roles helped elevate what could have been a drab and brutal reading of a 12-tone rite into a surprisingly listenable and spellbinding experience.

Welser-Most, in a rare address to the audience from the podium, described “Threni,” a late work from 1958, as “hellishly difficult.” That it no doubt was, in a technical sense. For the listener, however, the 30-minute setting of text from the Book of Lamentations amounted to an entrancing and even suspenseful ritual.

A rearranged orchestra readily evoked the call-and-response nature of Renaissance church music by which Stravinsky was inspired, and the whispered and radiantly sung intonations by the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus punctuated the proceedings in the most haunting manner.

But oh, those guests from Seraphic Fire. They did what so few singers can: make serialism sound natural. Theirs was the rare 12-tone performance that transcended technique and operated solely on the level of real music.

Another work that fared better than one might have expected was “Apollon Musagete” (“Apollo, Leader of the Muses”). Without dancers to act out the story, the 30-minute ballet from 1927 might have languished in some hands. Here, on Thursday, it enchanted.

The first tableau enjoyed a deft and elegant performance true to the image of a god’s birth in Welser-Most’s shaping of a long, steady crescendo. Conductor and orchestra then made short work of the second tableau, turning in pristine string solos and a set of lustrous, lilting dances that made envisioning the action an easy and pleasant task.

Two shorter works from early in Stravinsky’s career rounded out the program nicely, offering a bit of lightheartedness in contrast to the weightier ballet and “Threni.”

The brief “Fireworks,” from 1908, served Thursday as a festive opener. A little more zest and greater textural clarity might have been in order but the performance as a whole did justice to the pyrotechnic scene.

“Symphonies of Wind Instruments” also flew by quickly. That’s what happens when some of the top woodwind and brass players in the world get together. They treated the short, 1920 score to a precise and dynamic performance, one that held sonic interest even as it traversed territories ranging from dark to bright and every shade in between.

Everyone knows “Petrouchka,” “The Firebird,” and “The Rite of Spring.” But there’s a lot more to Stravinsky than the greatest hits, and as this week’s program proves beyond doubt, the Cleveland Orchestra is one group capable of playing it all.

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