It’s an unfortunately rare occurrence to hear an entire evening of American music, even from a major American orchestra. But that’s just what happened this weekend at The Cleveland Orchestra, led by one of the deans of American music himself, John Adams, who offered two of his own scores which bookended a pair of works by Aaron Copland. The two most performed American composers, both developed a uniquely American brand of art music of singular craft while still being direct and approachable – and both were acknowledged with a Pulitzer Prize in music. Adams is no stranger to Cleveland having conducted TCO on two previous occasions, and it was here where his 1997 piano concerto Century Rolls was premiered. With his most recent appearance being in 1999, however, the weekend’s return was emphatically welcome.

John Adams conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Adams’ 1986 fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine made for an ebullient opener with its pulsating brilliance and lustrous shimmer. A hypnotically repeated woodblock kept time as the music grew in complexity; packing much into its sub-five minute duration, it was a wild ride of boundless energy – and seatbelts weren’t provided. 

Copland’s Quiet City is a remarkable expression of the loneliness one might experience in the deserted streets of a city after hours – perhaps a musical complement of sorts to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Two Cleveland principals were featured: Michael Sachs (trumpet) and Robert Walters (English horn); both performed from their usual chairs rather than front of stage as a concerto – a wise interpretative choice, allowing their solo lines to better blend into the darkness of the cityscape. The wide-open harmonies of the opening chord progression imbued a pervasive air of solitude and introspection. Sachs’ trumpet was bright in tone yet nonetheless forlorn and disquieting; Walters offered a more restrained counterpart. Near the end, the music grew impassioned, only to retreat to a quietude which faded to silence.

Appalachian Spring was presented in its 1945 suite, shortened to eight key scenes culled from the complete ballet score, but expanded from 13-member chamber ensemble to full orchestra. Matters began in contemplative reflection with Copland’s characteristic earthy harmonies, heightened by gentle touches in the flute and clarinet. The following scene was markedly more exultant, but in manner nonetheless stately and graceful. Sweetly tender playing marked “Duo for the Bride and her Intended”, followed by foot-tapping, folksy dances – though still not straying far the ballet’s general restraint, skirting the raucousness of Billy the Kid or Rodeo. A reminiscence of the opening was especially poignant, perhaps indicating a longing for American idealism. The Shaker hymn Simple Gifts has become regarded as quintessential Americana (indeed, an arrangement was performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration); here it first appeared in the clarinet, stylish, yet graceful and direct, and in due course magnificently in the full orchestra, before closing in the tranquil beauty of Appalachia.

Leila Josefowicz plays Scheherazade.2 with The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Adams returned to music from his own pen for the second half, devoted to Scheherazade.2. Since its first performance in 2015, the work has been championed by orchestras across the globe (in his spoken introduction, Adams noted that dedicatee Leila Josefowicz has now performed it over fifty times), finally arriving here in Cleveland. Since first encountering the work at a Chicago Symphony performance not quite two years ago, I have continued to be convinced of its status as a landmark of 21st-century music, and with both composer and dedicatee at the helm, this was surely a definitive performance. Adams was inspired to take on the project as a necessary response to the brutality towards women portrayed in the namesake work of Rimsky-Korsakov and its source material, The Arabian Nights (which thanks to clever programming, TCO performed just last month). The “updated version” accordingly presents a strong female lead, as per a modern consciousness and an impetus towards social justice.

The opening “Tale of the Wise Young Woman” was music of colorful flourishes, decorated by liberal use of the cimbalom expertly played by Chester Englander. With long-bowed lyricism, Josefowicz soared over the expansive orchestra. One was struck by the sheer physicality of her playing as she was truly acting out the role of the heroine, and quite convincingly. Despite its name, “A Long Desire (Love Scene)” was initially of shocking violence, to which Josefowicz countered with rapturous beauty. Buttressed by dense scoring in the percussion and brass, “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards” depicted the fanaticism of religious zealots with shattering ferocity; Josefowicz’s reply in the wake of danger was calm, collected, and confident. “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary” was an apotheosis of sorts, with rapid virtuosity giving way as matters became more disembodied. Josefowicz sailed atop a deeply moving chord progression in the strings, eventually reaching – just as in the Rimsky-Korsakov – a sustained pitch high above the clouds.