The Cleveland Orchestra neared the end of its summer season at Blossom Music Center on Sunday evening with a pleasing and well-executed program of standards by Haydn and Mendelssohn, and a rarity by Arthur Benjamin, with the orchestra’s assistant principal oboe Jeffrey Rathbun as soloist. Nicholas McGegan, music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, was the guest conductor.

Nicholas McGegan © Steve Sherman
Nicholas McGegan
© Steve Sherman

The days when a full-size orchestra performed Haydn’s symphonies have now more or less gone the way of the dodo, and, accordingly, The Cleveland Orchestra was reduced to a modest size for this concert, emphasizing transparency of texture. Haydn spent the 1791-92 season in London, to great success, especially with his first collection of six “London” Symphonies. He was re-engaged to return, and in his Viennese interim, he composed six more symphonies, including the Symphony no. 99 in E flat Major. Shortly after his return to London in 1794, the symphony was premiered, further burnishing Haydn’s reputation.

The symphony opens with an Adagio – but not somber – introduction leading into the main Allegro. McGegan favored a robust sound, but with elegant precision. He doesn’t so much conduct as “mold phrases” with his gestures. As is their reputation, The Cleveland Orchestra acted as a larger chamber ensemble listening to each other to match phrasing and articulation, differentiating string and wind legato with chordal punctuations with timpani and brass. The exquisite second movement Adagio contrasted alternating strings passages with passages for winds. In the midst of string figures there appeared a little solo flute figure, with an upward grace note, like a short bird call. The third movement Menuetto was bouncy, obviously influenced by folk music; the Trio was more graceful. The Finale was filled with counterpoint, the theme shared among the sections, each popping in at the appropriate time. As had happened in the first movement, Haydn used the device of a “grand pause” – a moment of silence before beginning again in a new key. The winds and brass were especially deserving of the group bow McGegan gave them at the end.

What a fine performer oboist Jeffrey Rathbun is! As the orchestra’s second oboe, he rarely gets a chance in the solo spotlight, which is a shame. His tone was rich and sang out over the string chamber orchestra in Arthur Benjamin’s Divertimento on Themes by Gluck (1952). The work is a suite of five short arrangements of movements from a set of sonatas for two violins and continuo composed by Gluck in 1746. Unlike Stravinsky’s reworking of music spuriously attributed to Pergolesi in the ballet Pulcinella, in which harmonies and meters are given the “Stravinskian” treatment, Benjamin's accompaniments are harmonically and rhythmically conservative, sometimes trading voices stereophonically from one side of the orchestra to the other. Gluck/Benjamin give the soloist lots of notes to play; there was nary a noticeable slip from Rathbun. The cadenzas were brilliant. The third movement’s melody was long, lyrical, and legato. In the passages requiring the oboe’s lower register Rathbun’s sound was especially mellow. The Menuetto, in contrast to Haydn’s minuet earlier on this program, was quick and delicate. The finale was in triple meter: a tarantella? The solo part was filled with ornamentation devised by Benjamin. A short cadenza was interpolated right before the final cadence. The suite wasn’t profound, but, as the title implied, it was charming and diverting.

Felix Mendelssohn dedicated the first published edition of his Symphony no. 3 in A minor, the “Scottish” to the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. His initial inspiration took place during a tour of the British isles and, especially, a visit to Edinburgh in 1829. Although he began the symphony shortly after the visit, it was not completed until 1842. In interconnected movements performed without pause, the symphony is tightly constructed. Although Mendelssohn did not assign any specific program to his music, the essence of Scottish music and generalized depictions of winds, landscapes and rough seas are found along the way.

This performance continued the virtues found earlier in the concert: emphasis on clean phrasing, legato contrasted with sharply dotted rhythms (in the third movment), and well-judged proportions of tempo over the 35 minutes of the symphony. The opening of the fourth movement (Allegro guerriero) was suitably war-like, while the maestoso of the finale was grand, but never lagged.