The second installment of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Summers@Severance series was a largely Spanish affair, with Rodrigo’s lovely Concierto de Aranjuez as the evening’s centerpiece. Making his local debut was conductor Thierry Fischer, stepping in last minute for an indisposed Pablo Heras-Casado; this necessitated some program changes. Rounding out the Rodrigo were works of Bizet and Debussy; the program was repeated on Sunday at Blossom, there with the addition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol in continuation of the Spanish theme.

Pepe Romero © Anton Goiri
Pepe Romero
© Anton Goiri

A suite from Bizet’s Carmen opened, containing many of the opera’s best-known orchestral excerpts. “Les Toréadors” was bright and vigorous, unashamedly brassy if a bit overplayed and rather lacking in subtlety, though the more lyrical themes were given a statelier treatment. Jeffrey Rathbun offered a fine oboe solo in the “Seguidilla” and others had noteworthy solo passages in the following “Intermezzo,” yet matters never quite seemed to fully gel. This was a late addition to the program in tandem with the conductor change, and it certainly sounded as if it could have benefitted from more rehearsal time. The closing “Danse bohème” was an exciting potboiler, but nonetheless lacked the precision one would expect from this orchestra.

While it might have been a debut for Fischer, guitarist Pepe Romero is no newcomer having made his first Cleveland appearance in 1966. The Concierto de Aranjuez is one of his signature pieces and one couldn’t have asked for a more authentic and authoritative performance – and on the same stage as where the concerto received its US premiere in 1959. The tenderly strummed chords that opened were of infectious appeal and Romero played with an elegance fit for the palace for which the work was named. The central Adagio opened as a songful lament with the guitar in dialogue with the English horn (Robert Walters). Lush, romantic harmonies were deftly orchestrated so as not to obscure the guitar, and Romero was finely balanced with the orchestra – no small feat given that the acoustic guitar isn’t an instrument which projects terribly well. Romero gave the extended cadenza with a keenly judged dramatic pacing, arpeggios effortlessly flowing out of his instrument though this was a virtuosity firmly in service of the music. The gentle finale grasped one’s attention with its insouciant charm, maintained through the delicate filigree that led to its understated conclusion. As an encore, the guitarist offered a work by his father, Celedonio Romero.

Originally Debussy’s Ibéria was scheduled to conclude, but Fischer opted instead for La Mer. As a side note, Fischer’s ongoing recordings of the Saint-Saëns symphonies with the Utah Symphony (where he serves as music director) are warmly recommended, so I came with high expectations for the works by French composers that bookended the Rodrigo. “De l'aube à midi sur la mer” captured the ebb and flow of the ocean, building to a climax displaying its awe-inspiring power, yet it was given with a bombast perhaps better suited to the outdoor performance at Blossom rather than within the modest dimensions of Severance Hall. One didn’t always get the sense that Fischer was conducting the piece as an impressionistic work; that essential layer of haze and mystery was often missing, as if a Monet painting was suddenly rendered in sharp focus. “Jeux de vagues” teased out the playfulness of the rollicking waves, aided by touches on the glockenspiel. Eerie sounds in the percussion portended a ferocity achieved in the concluding “Dialogue du vent et de la mer.” At the other of the spectrum, ethereal sounds were heard from the stratospherically high violins, in due course giving way to the lively conclusion, glittering and colorful, yet ultimately a performance more serviceable than inspired.