For his only appearance at this summer's Blossom Music Festival, Franz Welser-Möst chose an orchestra-only program, with standards by Beethoven and Bartók, plus a scintillating performance of a suite drawn from Thomas Adès' satirical opera Powder Her Face. It was a perfect evening to visit The Cleveland Orchestra's rural home venue located in a forest area between Cleveland and Akron, adjacent to the Cuyahoga National Forest, northeast Ohio's own national park. Several times during the concert the audience was reminded how close to urban centers Blossom is, notably with several freight trains blowing their whistles in the distance, but very audibly, during the performance.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

Thomas Adès' Powder Her Face created a sensation in its depiction of the sexual escapades leading to the scandalous divorce trial of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The chamber opera has a cast of three, in addition to the Duchess, and a small orchestra. In 2007, as a commission from the Aldeburgh Festival, the Philharmonia Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra, Adès made full-orchestra arrangements of three movements from the opera. Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra gave the US première in 2008.

All three movements are the musical equivalents of looking at oneself in a wavy funhouse mirror – recognizable, but oddly out-of-kilter. The Overture is an over-the-top tango, with distorted swoops and glissandos, the ensemble seemingly not quite in sync. It is as if the entire orchestra is slightly drunk, but still determined to play their parts anyway, in tempos of their own choosing. The second movement Waltz begins delicately, with pizzicato strings, surreal but not as blowsy as the Overture. Complexity is added as the music is developed, with little "squeals" in the winds from time to time. At the end, the music vanishes. The Finale returns to the tango music heard earlier, with further development, interrupted by madcap interludes. Welser-Möst caught the nuances of this hilarious but musically complex suite. Conductor and Orchestra made surrealism sound natural and relaxed. It was a piece worthy of revival, especially in the relaxed summer setting.

Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was an abrupt and austere change from the lightheartedness of the Adès work. Bartók's four-movement suite from 1936 is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century orchestral music, and The Cleveland Orchestra gave it an affecting performance. The opening fugue was silky-smooth in the string legato, with its eventual textural density. The shimmering celesta arpeggios at the end of the movement were chilling, as if portending danger. The second movement Allegro was a dialogue between the divided string sections into two orchestras, with piano and celesta interjections. There were sharp string pizzicatos, sometimes reinforced by strokes on the xylophone. There were moments of whimsy along the way. The Adagio is one of Bartók's most vivid evocations of "night music" in which the sounds of the night are incorporated into the musical structure, alongside a modal folk song in the violins. The fourth movement reflected most clearly Bartók's interest in central and Eastern European folk songs. The rhythms of the movement were in irregular meters, but sometimes with hints of the music from the first movement. Despite the train whistles breaking the mood, this was a top-notch performance of precision, sense of rhythmic pulse and direction without seeming driven.

The concert after intermission was devoted to Beethoven's "heroic" Symphony no. 3 in E flat major. This was a concise and compact performance (if such a description can be made of a work of this scope). Under Welser-Möst's direction, the first movement was restless and urgent, on the edge of seeming rushed, but never quite crossing the line. The funeral march was especially notable for the precision of articulation in the winds, and the dignity of the entire ensemble. The emphasis in the third movement scherzo was in explosive dynamic contrasts. With only the briefest pause between movements, Welser-Möst launched into the last movement, which was truly heroic in scale, bringing to a close a concert that showed The Cleveland Orchestra at its virtuosic best.

At the concert's conclusion there was a lavish fireworks display above the grounds of the Blossom Music Center, with enough explosions to match Beethoven's heroic depictions.