Each of the works on this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert had a story to tell. Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor was about the aftermath of World War 2; Frank Bridge’s The Sea was an aptly-named soundscape; and for many members the audience, it would be hard to erase the images of Mickey Mouse in his magician’s hat in Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It was an appealing and satisfying program, diverse in style and emotion.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

The composition of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony spanned the end of World War 2 through the jubilation of the immediate end of the war into the oppression of the Stalin regime. TCO Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, very unusually, made several comments about the symphony before beginning the program. He pointed out that Prokofiev was the target of official opprobrium after the symphony’s first performance, which was well-received by the audience. He noted that the symphony’s last movement is apparently straightforward and happy, but happy music created with a figurative gun at the composer’s head.

The symphony is full of contradictory musical gestures: terse, dissonant exclamations are set alongside soaring, impassioned melodies. Tender moments turn into huge climaxes with the drumbeats of military marches. Although the third movement has the outward sound of joviality, there are plenty of sly, subversive gestures.

Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra caught all of these many mood swings and musical inside jokes. The wind and brass sections were especially on top form. Principal keyboard player Joela Jones was notable in important piano and celesta parts. The piano was often treated like a tuned percussion instrument, with repeated rhythmic patterns that carried the musical pulse. This symphony raises more questions than it answers. The Cleveland Orchestra’s reading here left us with the ongoing question: what was going through Prokofiev’s conscience when he wrote this troubling symphony?

The Cleveland Orchestra gave the United States premiere of Bridge’s 1910-11 four movement suite The Sea in 1923 and hasn’t played it since, which is a shame, because it is highly evocative in its tone-painting. Bridge’s most famous student, Benjamin Britten, was well aware of The Sea; the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten's opera Peter Grimes are highly influenced by Bridge’s work, even sharing the names of the last two movements, “Moonlight” and “Storm.” Each of the movements in Bridge’s work is relatively brief, only a few minutes, but the music is highly colorful, with the swells and surges of the waves and singing birds in the first movement ("Seascape"). The second movement ("Sea Foam") is frisky and Scherzo-like, with water splashing over the rocks. “Moonlight” is shining on a calm sea, subdued, but with a brief climax. After the “Storm” loses its power, the opening music of the first movement returns in almost exact recapitulation, thus reinforcing the eternal force that is the sea. Bridge’s work may not be a timeless masterpiece, but The Cleveland Orchestra gave it a serious and honest performance, drawing the drama out of Bridge’s late romantic style. Perhaps they should not wait another 97 years to play it.

What a pleasure it was to hear The Sorcerer’s Apprentice! There was no condescension to a popular piece. The orchestra’s bassoon section was in their glory (and got a group bow at the end). Welser-Möst built the tension precisely as the work progressed to a wild finale, a moment of calm and a final jolt.