Thomas Adès is one of our time’s most accomplished musical polymaths: composer, conductor, pianist, former artistic director of England’s Aldeburgh Festival. His works have been commissioned by the world’s most prestigious musical organizations and performers. More to the point, despite their great technical difficulty, many of Adès’ works have achieved repertory status. His 2005 Violin Concerto: Concentric Paths is one such example, with its integrated textures, extreme colors, and coherence from beginning to end.

Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee
The remarkable violinist Leila Josefowicz returned to Cleveland this weekend for a reprise of Concentric Paths, for which she was the soloist in its 2010 première by The Cleveland Orchestra. The intervening years have brought even more insight into Josefowicz’s interpretation of this thorny work; here it was presented with stunning musical and technical finesse.

The 20-minute concerto is in three movements, each with its own title, (Rings, Paths, Rounds) although it is not clear what the identification of the concentric circles is. There is constant dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and the solo part is often subsumed into the texture of the orchestra. The first movement especially calls for an extraordinarily high tessitura for the soloist, who plays almost non-stop. The second movement combines huge accents, silences, and pizzicatos in the solo part with thunderous chords in the orchestra. The soloist’s tune is spread over several octaves building to climax and then resolution in a serene passage of surpassing beauty featuring descending scales in varying simultaneous tempos. Adès returned to and expanded this same figuration in 2007 for his orchestral work Tevot (sadly, not yet performed by The Cleveland Orchestra). The third movement features unison high strings with flutes over a rhythmic, rumbling drum passage in the low untuned percussion. The soloist has long, sustained passages above all the orchestral activity. The ending is abrupt. In their support of Leila Josefowicz, Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra had their own challenges well in hand. This was an astonishing performance of perhaps the most significant violin concerto of this century so far.

There was a bit of marketing silliness leading up to this concert, billed as Götterdämmerung, with print advertising and solemnly intoned radio spots characterizing it almost as Lord of the Rings. But there were no voices and the selection of excerpts was not as long as even one act of Richard Wagner’s five-hour epic final opera of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Marketing aside, this performance of “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” and “Brünnhilde’s Immolation” made one wish that the 1990s aborted Ring recording with this orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi had been finished. The Cleveland Orchestra has its well-deserved  reputation of pristine and elegant clarity of sound. In this concert that refinement was expanded to burnished opulence in Wagner’s music. Brass, winds and strings seemed transported to splendor of golden sound and blend. Welser-Möst’s experience as a Wagner conductor in the opera house led to an uncommonly communicative performance, with the orchestra responding to subtleties of phrasing, pulse and dynamics. The excerpts flowed from one to another, building to the Ring’s denouement and the Rhine River’s golden treasure being returned to its source. At the release of Wagner’s final major chord, there was a moment of reverential silence before the applause and shouting began.

The concert opened with Lyra by Anthony Cheung, The Cleveland Orchestra’s new Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, who is serving as Composer in Residence through the 2016/17 season. The 20-minute work is based on the lyre in various cultural contexts, especially the Orpheus legend’s use of the lyre as inspiration for composers as varied as Monteverdi (his opera L’Orfeo) and Beethoven (his Fourth Piano Concerto).

Cheung has written for a very large orchestra, including a huge percussion section, several instruments tuned down a quarter-tone, and sampled synthesized sound. Cheung seems to espouse the “more is more” school of composition, with an extremely thick texture making it impossible to hear many of the effects he seemed to be trying to achieve. There were a number of alluring moments – the opening harp arpeggios; the sudden blast from the trumpets of the opening fanfares of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo followed by a surreal synthesized mash-up of the same music; and a glittering percussion passage reminiscent of the sounds found in Olivier Messiaen's orchestral works. Nonetheless, the complexity eventually became wearying.

The placement of Anthony Cheung’s work directly up against Thomas Adès’ concerto perhaps invited unfair comparison. In a different context Lyra might have fared better.