In mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic reached Cleveland and all non-essential activities came to a sudden halt, The Cleveland Orchestra quickly began providing access to music: the local FM radio station increased the number of broadcasts of more than fifty years of archival concert content; in warmer weather orchestra members played pop-up chamber music performances, often outdoors, in various parts of the city; and the orchestra instituted a series of podcasts.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

This week the orchestra resumed performances by means of a series of streamed, but filmed in advance, "episodes" under the general title "In Focus" on the orchestra's ambitious new digital streaming platform. The title of Episode 1 was Inspirations, with three works inspired by other places and events.

Despite the six-month pause, TCO, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, has not lost any of its beauty of sound nor its legendary precision, as evidenced by the three string works on the first program. The sound was pristine, and the camera work was first rate, although not revolutionary. The audio enabled the listener to get an idea of the miraculous sound in Severance Hall.

Ottorino Respighi's third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances was transparent in sound and lively in execution. Members of the orchestra's string sections were spread across the entire Severance Hall stage; everyone, including Welser-Möst wore face masks. These may be well-known pieces, which Respighi based on Renaissance and Baroque lute works, but there are challenges along the way, particularly in the extended second movement Arie de corte, from a lute tune by Jean-Baptiste Besard.

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

African-American composer George Walker's Antifonys (1968) was poignantly introduced by TCO violist Elisha Nelson, who worked with the composer a few years before his death to record his Viola Sonata. Despite his achievements as a concert pianist, composer and academic, Walker's works remain little known. Antifonys is polyphonic and dense, with thorny harmonies. Despite the dissonance, the Clevelanders' performance often had an arresting melodic thrust. This work and its performance were worth the price of admission.

The hour-long concert closed with a spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, not based on any specific Italian music, but more on his memories of visits to the Tuscan city in the 1870s and 80s. The string parts are often divisi, creating a lush texture, full of melodic interest. But Tchaikovsky was Russian, and Russian melodies are never far away, especially in the third and fourth movements. The performance swept along urgently, but never seemed rushed. It was the sort of reading that would have caused and audience to stand and cheer. The cheering was, alas, virtual and private at home. If we can't be in Severance Hall, Adella is probably the next best thing.

This performance was reviewed from TCO's Adella digital streaming platform