In the final subscription program before the holidays, The Cleveland Orchestra was to engage music director laureate Christoph von Dohnányi, but regrettably he was forced to withdraw on the advice of his physician. Replacing him – and making his Cleveland debut – was Mikko Franck, currently music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Franck left Dohnányi’s original program intact, inclusive of Brahms’ First Symphony, a Mozart piano concerto, and the Cleveland première of Julian Anderson’s Incantesimi.

Mikko Franck © Abramowitz | Radio France
Mikko Franck
© Abramowitz | Radio France

Anderson is a composer with an important Cleveland connection, having served as the orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2005-07, a residency which produced Fantasias, one of his most significant orchestral scores. Incantesimi (Italian for “enchantments”) is an effective 10-minute curtain-raiser, composed 2015-16 – this marks the third consecutive week TCO has had the foresight to program a work dating from post-2000. Ominous rumbles opened the work, with the focal point soon being shifted to the English horn, very finely played by Robert Walters.

There was an uneasy tension between the clangorous climaxes with dense scoring that emphasized the tubular bells and bass drum, and more intimate passages of long, meditative melodic lines. The pair of trumpets shifted on- and offstage, adding variety in the already colorful scoring. Later in the work, the woodblock was given prominence, said to represent the calming reassurance from the night watchman of a Japanese village, while the last word was given to the English horn. Franck, who conducts seated (occasionally stepping forward in moments of intensity) seemed to have a natural understanding of the piece, and made a convincing case.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 in B flat major brought forth Richard Goode, certainly a fine choice in for this repertoire. A gentle gesture in the strings opened the concerto, soon to be answered by the winds. Goode’s sprightly fingers made the piano line especially delightful, and in the graceful cadenza the pianist managed to be virtuosic without resorting to flashiness. The Andante un poco sostenuto is an elaborate set of variations, one of Mozart’s most substantial slow movements. Goode dug at the heart of it, deftly balanced with the orchestra which boasted a particularly fine choir of woodwinds. In the joyous rondo that concluded, Goode played with the necessary abandon, unpretentious and down to earth, and rapidly traversed the keyboard in the final cadenza.

Franck was at his finest in Brahms, an impressive account of the Symphony no. 1 in C minor. The tolling timpani made for an imposing yet tautly controlled opening, and the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein transitioned to the stormy vigor of the movement proper. The winds were delicately complemented by the high-reaching strings in the slow movement as its beauty gradually unraveled, ending on a sustained pitch in the upper register of concertmaster William Preucil’s instrument. Warmth emanated from the winds in the penultimate movement, and I was especially struck by the gleaming tone of Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet. Not quite a scherzo, the movement was playful nonetheless, a foil to the work’s surrounding seriousness. The solemnity returned unmistakably in the finale, marked by the gossamer tone of the horns. Its supple main theme appeared in a myriad of guises, and Franck had a keen sense of the movement’s large-scale architecture, rising to his feet for the first time in its triumphant final moments.