At its heart, all music is about the way our brains perceive patterns. In some genres – most notably 20th-century minimalism – that’s more explicit than others, which is what The Cleveland Orchestra sought to enlighten in Thursday night’s concert at Severance Hall, setting works by three great minimalists (Glass, Pärt and Adams) against Bach the old master of creating emotion out of intricate musical pattern.

The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

It’s a concert that suffered various postponements and personnel changes. Adams himself had been due to conduct this concert back in December, but with travel restrictions preventing this, he was limited to providing a filmed introduction. Into the breach stepped the conductor of Cleveland’s youth orchestra, Vinay Parameswaran. He must have impressed the management, because his promotion to Associate Conductor of the full orchestra was announced on the day of broadcast. There was also a change of pianist, with Marc-André Hamelin taking the place of Víkingur Ólafsson.

It’s a close-up of Hamelin’s fingers that we see first as he embarks on the hypnotic motif that opens Philip Glass’ Glassworks, showing how even the simplest of motifs can be tackled with extreme care and sensitivity. The construction of the work is compelling: the piano remains insistent throughout while the strings build over it, either adding the melody or gradually filling the harmonic space. You realise how demanding the piece is for the orchestra: for the full hypnotic effect, the pizzicato strings must be together to a the millisecond. Masked and distanced, the Cleveland Orchestra come close, but a fraction short of the last hair’s breadth. The timbre is clean to a fault: when the music moves to greater lushness, it transports us – but might do so even more if the sound were a little less dry and if there were a bit more of a romantic sweep.

Vinay Parameswan
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is also based on a hypnotic pattern: after a virtuosic opening played with verve by Jung-Min Amy Lee, a percussionist plays simultaneous notes on timpani and woodblock in a fragment that recurs repeatedly to start a sequence in which the strings fill in the texture. The work contrasts tension and tranquility: there is a sense that the solo violin is trying to escape from the pattern to some other dimension but finds itself unable to do so, sucked back in by the exceptional beauty of the ensemble string writing and providing beauty of its own in some lovely passages of high harmonics.

Parameswaran looks to be a conductor whom orchestral musicians will love because he is so clear in his direction. His arm movements are crisp and transparent and even when masked, you have no difficulty in seeing what or who he’s trying to emphasise. That clarity is particularly notable in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 5 where it’s a good match for Hamelin’s delicacy and precision. It’s a restrained performance – afficionados of Hamelin’s compatriot Glenn Gould might choose a warmer sound and more extravagant accenting – but in terms of highlighting the way Bach uses musical patterns, you couldn’t ask for better.

Vinay Parameswan, Marc-André Hamelin
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Published in 1978, Shaker Loops is one of John Adams' earliest works. The composer is adept at filling the spectral space by using cross rhythms in several different registers: it’s all a little frantic at the start but then settles down as Adams explores different moods. Parameswaran brings out the interest in the music by removing all muddiness: there are changes of pace, a lovely cello solo in the third movement, discords which turn into the jazz musician’s trick of “if you keep repeating a wrong note confidently enough, it stops being a wrong note”. You can try to deconstruct the music in your head, but it’s best to let it wash over you and swim with it. In all, this was a confident performance by a young conductor to watch.

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream