The Cleveland Orchestra has been much revered for the intimacy of its playing, more akin to chamber music that something out of the symphonic literature. This weekend’s concerts brought that side of the ensemble into full focus, so much so that the need for a conductor was obviated as William Preucil deftly led the orchestra both from the vantage point of a concerto soloist and from his usual position in the concertmaster’s chair. The evening opened with the spotlight on Preucil in a Vivaldi concerto, and in the remainder of the program the orchestra displayed their chamber-like approach to symphonies of Haydn and Mendelssohn.

William Preucil © Cleveland Orchestra
William Preucil
© Cleveland Orchestra

Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in E minor RV277, bearing the enigmatic epithet “Il favorito”, eschewed conventional Baroque complexity in favor of the more forward-thinking directness of the galant, nowhere more apparent than in the opening breaths which simply outlined the tonic. The orchestra was scaled down to strings and continuo, with Preucil amply projecting and differentiating his solo line from his colleagues, played with a refined elegance, save for the odd slip in intonation. The low strings were dropped altogether in the Andante, and here Vivaldi works wonders with a dearth of material: an affecting emotional intensity was achieved in Preucil’s straightforward melody over a pulsing accompaniment. A rhythmic snap marked the brief closing movement, an enjoyable if somewhat flagging conclusion.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 in G major opened with a stately introduction, giving way to a spirited seven-note theme, incessantly repeated and not without the composer’s characteristic humor. A return of that subject in the recapitulation was finely augmented by principal flute Joshua Smith. The Largo boasted a striking duet between the oboe and cello, and interjections from the trumpets and timpani gave the movement added heft. A rather flippant Menuetto followed, most notable for its folk-inspired trio, marked by modal melodies and parallel fifths atop a drone, the latter suggesting bagpipes – perhaps a clever programming choice in its presaging of the Scottish-themed second half. In the finale, a pervasive sense of drama was created through its lively dynamic contrasts. Preucil initiated each movement in using his bow as an ersatz baton, and the conductorless ensemble achieved a remarkable precision.

The balance of the evening was devoted to Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, beginning with a dark-hued, brooding statement, purportedly inspired by the solemn ruins of the Holyrood Palace. A graceful theme introduced the movement proper, carried by the lustrous clarinet of Afendi Yusuf, and more tempestuous material conjured a storm near the movement’s end. The scherzo was a markedly sunnier affair, with dance-like passages from Yusuf and jovial filigree in the strings.

Despite the orchestra’s high level of playing, it was in the Mendelssohn one wondered if a conductor might be of benefit to smooth out some rougher patches – and indeed, it should be remembered that the composer was one of the first to develop a reputation as a conductor, an incipient but increasingly necessary profession in those days. This was particularly noticeable in the slow movement, plagued by a handful of uncoordinated entrances, yet what nonetheless had the lasting impact was the sweetly lyrical melody in the violins and the stentorian chorale. The finale was of fire and vigor, a martial theme suggesting war (as per the very literal marking of “guerriero”), and an abrupt shift was to be had in the maestoso finale to close in bellicose triumph.