The Cleveland Orchestra’s summer season at Blossom Music Center, in a heavily wooded area adjacent to the Cuyahoga National Park about a 45-minute drive south of Cleveland, is in full swing, and Mother Nature cooperated to give a large audience a perfect evening for a concert that was musically satisfying as well as a good example of the orchestra’s ongoing educational outreach, a cooperative performance that included the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra’s assistant conductor Brett Mitchell was on the podium for the marathon concert.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

The concert opened with Antonín Dvořák’s 1896 symphonic poem The Noon Witch, written after the composer returned to Europe from his American sojourn. It is based on a macabre tale of a mother who tells her rambunctious child that a witch will come and snatch him if he doesn’t behave. The witch does appear – at least in the mother’s mind – and the mother tries to save her child. As the clock strikes noon, the father returns to find that the mother has accidentally smothered the child while protecting him. The work is picturesque of the story, beginning with folksy pastoral music, then generating tension until a mighty minor chord, when the son is discovered dead. The Cleveland Orchestra brought out the various solo colors and mood changes in their performance, especially as the music picks up steam and in the background we hear the twelve chimes marking noontime. It was an unusual and interesting novelty for a concert opener. It would be interesting to hear as a set all four of Dvořák’s symphonic poems composed as the same time as The Noon Witch (the others being The Water Goblin, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wild Dove) inspired by ballads by Czech folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben.

It was clear within a few moments of its beginning that this performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, with guest soloist James Ehnes, was going to be something special. Ehnes and Mitchell gave a reading that was uncommonly poetic, striking a balance between the concerto’s lyricism and drama, showing a thorough understanding of Barber’s brand of mid-century American romanticism. Ehnes played with purity of tone but also with yearning richness of the violin’s lower range required by the concerto’s second movement. For his part, Mitchell managed the orchestral textures with transparency, while not inhibiting occasional rapturous outpourings. Assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun played the main theme of the second movement with plaintive beauty.

Iso Briselli, child prodigy and scion of a wealthy American soap manufacturer, was the intended first performer of Barber's concerto, but he never played the work. There were complaints that the third movement was unplayable*, but a quickly arranged private performance by Herbert Baumel, a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, proved otherwise. However, the movement’s perpetual motion still provides a fearsome challenge to soloists 76 years later. Ehnes was up to the task, with endless streams of scales and arpeggios, and the orchestra providing rhythmic interjections along the way.

After a lengthy ovation, Ehnes returned for an encore, the Allegro assai final movement of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major. It was another perpetual motion machine, in which Ehnes clearly delineated the harmonic structure built into Bach’s musical line.

Since 1968, The Cleveland Orchestra has collaborated with Kent State University music school to mentor a select group of students in chamber and orchestral repertoire, culminating in a side-by-side performance with the students of the Kent/Blossom Music Festival integrated into The Cleveland Orchestra. After the intermission on Saturday’s concert the forces combined to perform Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It was a risky choice for such an endeavor; Bartók’s masterpiece is full of pitfalls for even the most skilled musicians. This performance was mostly a success, although perhaps not of the precision we would expect from The Cleveland Orchestra on their own. But dropping in several dozen young musicians who do not regularly rehearse and perform with the orchestra must almost certainly change the equilibrium of the ensemble. This was a more generic performance than I have heard in the past, but that is not to say that there were not beautiful moments, including the numerous solo passages, scattered throughout. At times the intonation of the ensemble was a little smudgy, but Brett Mitchell held it all together, and it was surely an incomparable educational experience for the young musicians sitting next to seasoned professionals.

Prior to The Cleveland Orchestra’s concert, The Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra played their own concert segment, Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, also conducted by Brett Mitchell.

 

* In response to a request from the family of Iso Briselli, this section has been reworded from the originally published article, which stated that the complaints of unplayability were made by Mr. Briselli himself. Mr. Briselli's family point to research which shows that although he requested extensive revisions, he never considered the part unplayable.