The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, established 91 years ago and survivor of the great turmoil of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, made a visit to Severance Hall in Cleveland this week as part of the Serbian orchestra’s first-ever United States tour. The tour also features stops at Symphony Hall in Chicago; Strathmore, in the metropolitan Washington, DC, area; and Carnegie Hall. The orchestra’s chief conductor, Muhai Tang, led the program. The Belgrade Philharmonic is using its current tour as a marketing tool and to spur fundraising for a new concert hall in Belgrade. The players are mostly young, probably in their 30s, with what seemed to be an almost even split between men and women. Severance Hall was not full, but the crowd was respectable, and there were many in the audience representing the large Serbian community in Cleveland.

Muhai Tang © Jef Rabillon
Muhai Tang
© Jef Rabillon

This tour is clearly an important step in rebuilding an orchestra that was rent asunder by war, when personal survival was of greater importance than giving concerts. Although the orchestra does not at this point rank with the top US and European orchestras, the playing was, for the most part, solid and engaged, presenting the audience with optimistic glimpses of what is possible for the future. There are clearly many talented players; the two concertmasters (they split the duties), the principal clarinetist, and the principal horn player were especially notable among the orchestral soloists. The players were responsive to Muhai Tang’s animated conducting, although on several occasions I thought he might dance himself right off the podium.

After a brief welcome and introduction by a representative of the orchestra, an unidentified uniformed brass band filed on stage behind the orchestra. Muhai Tang raised his baton, and, with a snare drum roll, orchestra and band gave an impressive performance of The Star Spangled Banner, followed an equally stirring reading of Bože pravde the Serbian national anthem.

The main program began with a suite from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade. Roughly contemporary with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the Armenian Khachaturian suffered the repression common during the Stalin Soviet era. His music is conservative, tuneful, and immediately accessible. This particular work belongs to a category we would now refer to as “light music”. The Belgrade orchestra had a robust and enthusiastic sound, but often not especially focused and blended. The second movement, “Nocturne,” featured an extended solo by the concertmaster, and later echoed by solo clarinet and solo horn. The violinist seemed quite nervous to begin, but relaxed later in the movement. The closing “Galop” was comically off to the races, with no time to spare.

I had never encountered the music of the Serbian composer Stevan Hristić (1885-1958), who was also the founder of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. His ballet The Legend of Ohrid (1924-1947), is characterized by its use of Serbian folk music, very imaginative harmonically and orchestrated skillfully. The “Suite No. 1” performed here was in four movements, showing a variety of styles and emotions. The opening introduction had stark, multi-octave unison passages, like a dirge or processional, interspersed with very soft string passages. The solo clarinet had an exquisite folk-like melody. A “Greek Dance” featured a spritely oboe solo over a bassoon ostinato. The melody is taken up by other wind soloist who interweave the tune in complex patterns and trade around the ostinato. It was exotic and enchanting. The “Janissary Dance” reminded one of Janáček in its use of ostinati and sharply accented chords, rhythmically off-set. The closing “Turtle Dove” was again very rhythmic, in triple meter, a gigantic folksong setting. It was obvious from their performance that this piece holds a special place in the repertoire of the orchestra. They played it with alternating tenderness and gusto.

Jean Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2 in D Major, op.43, filled the second half of the program. The Belgrade Philharmonic’s performance was more polished and fluent than some of the previous playing, if not particularly subtle. There were isolated issues of ensemble and intonation, but in broad brush strokes, it was a solid. The third movement scherzo (Vivacissimo) was taken at an extremely fast tempo, which seemed remarkably clean and accurate. The orchestra did not fail in the fourth movement’s always-glorious conclusion, one of symphonic music’s most thrilling moments.

Muhai Tang and and the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra offered two encores: Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila and a march that incorporated what was, from the audience’s reaction, a familiar Serbian tune. Many in the crowd clapped along with the performance. On the basis of this single performance, the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra is a group to watch in the future. The players are young, talented, and eager; with strong leadership (both artistically and administratively) and ongoing funding, the potential is there for the group to be top-notch.