The Cleveland Orchestra dependably manages to serve up a particularly rich and delectable program over the Thanksgiving weekend, and this year was certainly no exception. The present offering was of a distinctly Gallic persuasion. Though only one composer performed was a native Frenchman, all derived fertile inspiration from time spent in Paris. The podium saw the welcome return of guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno, who now balances music directorships on both sides of the Atlantic (Luxembourg and Toronto).

Gustavo Gimeno
© Marco Borggreve

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite saw particularly fine playing from the woodwinds, encouraging a sense of fairy tale simplicity and wonder. Robert Walters’ English horn passages in Tom Thumb made matters all the more entrancing, while the colorful orchestrations in the central Empress of the Pagodas were given with vigor. The closing The Fairy Garden was of magical charm, all the more alluring when tinted by the harp and celesta.

Now based in Paris, Bryce Dessner is an Ohio native, hailing from Cincinnati. In addition to a substantial body of concert music, Dessner’s wide-ranging output spans popular idioms and film scores. He wrote his Concerto for two pianos in 2017 for Katia and Marielle Labèque, and the work received its premiere the following year with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a fitting work for them, written admiration of the sisters’ innate musical chemistry, a sentiment the composer noted was heightened through collaborating with his own twin brother Aaron as members of the indie rock band The National.

Cast in the traditional three movements, the concerto is rather compact, clocking in at just over twenty minutes. The bold opening, punctuated by the percussion, was dominated by cascading runs across the length of both keyboards. Dessner’s language is tonal and readily approachable, but liberally splashed with color, and the first movement was propelled by an almost unflagging kinetic energy. The central movement was marked by hypnotically repeated notes, akin to a ticking clock, first heard in the pianos and in due course passed throughout the orchestra. The considerable rhythmic complexities were cleanly negotiated.

More motoric material was introduced in the finale, given with an unrelenting drive. Listening here, one would hardly be surprised that this is from a composer who first made his name in rock and roll. A poignant chord progression first heard near the work’s beginning resurfaced, and the pianists hammered out the closing gesture. While the work ultimately doesn't manage to say anything terribly profound, it was nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable listen. As an encore, the duo offered a two piano transcription of “Jet Song” from Bernstein’s West Side Story – great fun, and a timely tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

The evening’s main course came in the form of Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Low strings and a slow introduction gave the work heft and severity from the onset. Gimeno sharply contoured the rhythmic features and maintained a keen sense of direction amidst the large-scale form. I found the brass climaxes to be a bit too harsh here, but the movement’s close resounded with the luster of the composer’s beloved cathedral organ. The lovely Allegretto hauntingly brought the English horn in the spotlight atop harp and pizzicato strings, a few unfortunate flubs from the brass section notwithstanding. A burst of energy began the finale, and Gimeno thoughtfully emphasized the recurrence of the same motivic germ that opened the work. A passage of resonant strings and touching filigree in the harp served as a highpoint, offering stentorian contrast to the more bombastic material.