In his opening remarks to this annual gala concert, executive director André Gremillet expressed the importance for The Cleveland Orchestra to truly be Cleveland’s orchestra, and this spirit of community engagement – long integral to the orchestra’s mission – was abundantly apparent Saturday night. In partnership with the Cleveland Foundation, 1000 free tickets were made available to the community. Franz Welser-Möst treated the packed house to a populist, crowd-pleasing program of works connected by a common thread in their Italian inspiration or origin. While gala concerts often feature a star soloist, Saturday’s program allowed one instead to focus completely on the orchestra, just ahead of their departure for an extensive European tour.

A substantial piece from a substantial opera, Verdi’s ballet music from Don Carlos put the composer’s considerable talents as an orchestrator on full display. An introductory dance-like theme was given with lilting abandon, a certain departure from the dramatic intensity when in the context of the complete opera (though this ballet is rarely included nowadays). Concertmaster Peter Otto delivered a solo passage notable for its melodic richness, and the other standout soloist was recently appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf whose singing tone was quintessentially operatic. Matters built to a shining brass chorale which resurfaced again at the end, then with even more grandiosity.

The only other native Italian composer programmed was Respighi, represented with his suite The Birds which functioned as both a colorful avian portrait and an homage to his Baroque antecedents. The opening Prelude deftly balanced a stately Baroque splendor with the lushness of the modern orchestra. Oboist Frank Rosenwein conveyed the wistful mourning of The Dove in his long-breathed line over a subtle accompaniment in the harp, while the incessance of The Hen was brought to life in the sprightly clarinets. The Nightingale was alluringly atmospheric, abetted by gentle touches in the celesta. In the concluding movement, The Cuckoo was unmistakably conveyed through the hypnotically repeated descending thirds, leading to the eventual bold restatement of the prelude.

With the subsequent two selections coming from the Strauss family, one felt as if transported to a Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert, an engagement which Welser-Möst has been invited to conduct on multiple occasions. Johann Strauss II’s Roses from the South (“south” likely referring to Italy in keeping with the evening’s theme) radiated the charm of an imperial ballroom as if warmed by the Mediterranean sun, and the buoyant waltz themes carried the work to a predictably boisterous close. In Johann Strauss I's Fantasy on the Carnival of Venice, the principal players were given increasingly complex variations on that immediately familiar theme to comic effect, played with aplomb and élan.

The scheduled program concluded with a Russian’s perspective of Italy, Tchaikovsky’s durable Capriccio italien. From the arresting trombone opening, this was an energetic workout, the somber introductory material soon giving way to a veritable potpourri of Italianate themes, with a memorable tarantella of particular vigor. While this would have been a festive end to a festive evening in its own right, the enthusiastic audience was indulged with an encore that came full circle back to Verdi – a rousing rendition of the overture to La forza del destino.