The Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst opened the orchestra’s 101st season this weekend with a program in which the two new works took home the prizes. A familiar warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s suite from the ballet Swan Lake came in a distant third for its slow and sometimes mannered performance. The weekend’s concerts were dedicated to the memory of composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, who died in July 2018. Knussen was a frequent guest conductor at The Cleveland Orchestra.

Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

Jeffrey Rathbun is the Assistant Principal Oboe of The Cleveland Orchestra, but he pursues active teaching and composing careers as well. Rathbun’s Pantheon was commissioned by the orchestra as part of its 100th-anniversary celebrations. The work received its world première performances at these concerts, and it demonstrated Rathbun’s intimate knowledge of the orchestra and its musicians. The ten-minute work is in three parts (A-B-A) with the opening and closing sections being active, and often quite dissonant. An ostinato-like figuration is heard first in the double bass but is then developed at length through the rest of the orchestra. There are dissonant passages, but also alluring moments of sparkling percussion and brass fanfares. Rathbun has written idiomatic solos for many of the principal players. The middle section is softer and more lyrical, with a sinuous violin melody that becomes increasingly ecstatic as the music proceeds. After a lengthy transition, music from the opening returns, but in somewhat abbreviated form. Although still agitated, in the end, the music fades away. At first hearing, this impressed as a strong piece, worthy of future performances.

In 2016 The Cleveland Orchestra played the US première of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you. On this concert, TCO offered another Abrahamsen US first performance of his piano concerto for left hand and orchestra Left, alone. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud played the virtuosic solo part, which among other things, required the soloist to rap on the underside of the piano case and pluck strings within. Tharaud very reasonably played from a score, which, when plucking inside the piano, he held in his right hand. Left, alone is in six movements – some very brief – grouped into two larger sections, 3 + 3. As in let me tell you, the orchestration and rhythms are highly complex, but yet often transparent, with the complexity used for to create specific musical textures. An unusual feature of the work is a two-hand piano part within the orchestra. At times the soloist's music dissipated into the shadow orchestral piano (expertly played by Joela Jones). Percussion plays a significant role, with unusual timbres combined with other instruments; for example, claves held against the bass drum, accompanying a disjointed solo piano melody. Another passage has a staccato single piano note against sustained strings, while percussion seems to imitate drops of rain. This was a brilliant performance, and Left, alone should enter the repertoire of adventurous pianists and orchestras.

Tchaikovsky's ballet suite from Swan Lake closed the program. It was often thunderous, but also frustrating. The Waltz was sensuous, completely bound in Russian romanticism. The harp and violin solos in the Pas d'action were superb. But the Mazurka was so slow that one would pity a dancer trying to perform it.  Likewise, in the Final Scene the orchestra reveled in Tchaikovsky’s romanticism. It was passionate and thrilling, but not very elegant.

The encore, Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave, was unusual to hear at Severance Hall. It was fun to hear it at full throttle.