Last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra program brought to light two major German orchestral scores written exactly a century apart, both of which challenged tradition and amounted to a feast for the ears in their vast and idiosyncratic use of orchestral resources. The program further served as a platform for two auspicious Cleveland Orchestra debuts, of both conductor Daniel Harding and viola soloist Antoine Tamestit.

Antoine Tamestit and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Jörg Widmann is a composer well-known to local audiences, having served as this orchestra’s Daniel R Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2009-11. It isn’t enough to simply listen to the 2015 Viola Concerto – given its American premiere this weekend – it’s a piece that needs to be seen to appreciate its theatricality, meticulously detailed by the composer. Instead of entering the stage with the conductor, Tamestit was seated inconspicuously next to the harp. He began the work not playing from the strings, but by tapping the body of his instrument as if trying it out for the first time, gingerly exploring its possibilities. Pizzicato passages followed, quickly becoming manic and frenetic.

Tamestit wandered throughout the ensemble, engaging in animated musical discourse with orchestra members, sometimes congenial but more often flippant. Especially for a composer so steeped in tradition, Widmann certainly took every opportunity to upend the venerable concerto form. In due course, Tamestit discovered the bow, at first wielding it like a sword, and then seemingly tuning the instrument as if oblivious to the rest of the musicians on stage. Matters erupted into a primal scream (quite literally – see the album cover of Tamestit’s recording of the work for reference!) and a forceful climax in the timpani. Finally, the soloist assumed the usual position adjacent to the conductor and explored the lyrical potential of the viola in the closing, plaintive Aria, eventually evaporating into silence. I wasn’t convinced all of Widmann’s experiments in the work were successful ones, but it nonetheless made for a remarkable listen.

Daniel Harding conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The massive proportions of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony are almost comical, but Strauss wasn’t one with a reputation for subtlety, outdoing even himself in his final tone poem with a fittingly larger-than-life subject matter. TCO is an ensemble with a great fluency in Strauss, having released a warmly recommended recording of selected tone poems earlier this year. Darkness before dawn was depicted in the goosebumps-inducing low brass, shrouded in mystery before the glorious, brilliant sunrise. A climbing theme reached skyward, a gesture that served as a recurring signpost in this labyrinthine journey. As with the Widmann, there was a striking visual element in seeing the stage practically overflowing with so many musicians playing in sync.

An offstage brass section added a further dimension, although the precision one usually expects from the Clevelanders wasn’t always there, as with occasional lapses in the larger ensemble – but given Harding’s freshness to this orchestra and the complexity of the work, I didn’t find this to be much of a detriment. One was easily swept away in the exquisite scenery painted in music: the liquid sounds of the gushing waterfall, the evocative cowbells of an alpine meadow, the ferocious storm that pushed the orchestra to its limits in delirious, cinematic detailing. Some of the most affecting music came in the solemn, plangent layer of organ in the Ausklang, before the work retreated to where the journey began in the silent depths of the night.