A summer season concert at the Blossom Music Center would not be the normal place for The Cleveland Orchestra to give first performances, but through a coincidental oddity of programming, there were two orchestra premières: Samuel Barber’s 1945 Cello Concerto, Op. 22, with the orchestra’s excellent principal cellist Mark Kosower as soloist, and the concert opener, William Walton’s Prelude and Fugue: The Spitfire, from 1942. Gustav Holst’s The Planets occupied the second half of the program, and a note in the program booklet indicated another interesting oddity: The Cleveland Orchestra did not perform The Planets – one of the most beloved orchestral warhorses – until 1971, almost 60 years after its composition. But as if to make up for lost time, it has been performed frequently since then, including at least three times in the last five years.

Bramwell Tovey © Epix Studios
Bramwell Tovey
© Epix Studios

Walton’s Spitfire prelude and fugue was a product of Britain’s World War II propaganda film machine, two sections extracted from the composer’s score for Leslie Howard’s film The First of the Few. The Spitfire was given credit as the plane responsible for many of Britain’s greatest battle victories in its ability to challenge the German Luftwaffe. Two of the eighteen music cues for the film were extracted for this concert work. The first, a grand, patriotic march constituting the film’s opening title music, is one of a long line, including Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches and Walton’s own Crown Imperial. Guest conductor Bramwell Tovey made us sit up and think of England in this grand performance. The fugue represented the assembly line in the Spitfire factory and has a mechanized and propulsive feeling to it. There is a slow middle section with a plaintive violin solo, here played by the orchestra’s associate concert master, Peter Otto. Walton eventually combines the fugue theme with the patriotic march of the prelude for a grand ending.

In remarks preceding the Barber concerto, Mr Tovey explained the history of the work and his curiosity of why Barber’s Violin Concerto has become a staple of the repertoire, while the Cello Concerto has remained largely unknown. The violin concerto is very accessible, with long lyrical melodies and memorable tunes and traditional harmony; the cello concerto is more austere in its harmonies, and, although there are melodic passages, the solo part is virtuosic and does not offer the same immediate listening gratification. Mark Kosower made a compelling case for the resurrection of the concerto. The first movement has echoes of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ pastoral style. The cello has repeated ascending chromatic figures before the main theme of the movement is introduced. The cello is given an extended cadenza before the return of the main theme, this time in the solo oboe. The oboe soloist returns in the slow second movement, intertwined in an achingly beautiful melody with the solo cello. The third movement, although still clearly tonal, is much more adventurous harmonically, with asymmetrical rhythms for soloist and orchestra.

In a previous Blossom performance of The Planets, photography from the US NASA planetary missions had been shown on large video screens. (Indeed, on Sunday, representatives from Cleveland’s NASA Glenn Research Center were on the Blossom grounds for pre-concert educational activities, including a model of the current Mars rover craft.) In this case, there was no amazing photography, and Bramwell Tovey correctly pointed out that Holst’s interest in the planets was not from the aspect of astronomy but their astrological significance.

Mr Tovey led a performance that was short on subtlety but drew every last bit of drama from this well-known suite. He favored tempos that were at the slow end of the spectrum. The big tune in “Jupiter”, now commonly sung to the text “I Vow to Thee My Country”, was played an immensely dignified tempo. The climactic brass chorales in “Saturn” were thrilling. In “Neptune” we were again reminded how much of The Planets was John Williams’ inspiration for his Harry Potter and other film scores. The off-stage women’s chorus (a relatively small group selected from the Blossom Festival Chorus and prepared by Lisa Wong) was not as distant as they might have been. The acoustics and construction of the Blossom pavilion were such that the choral sound was quite distinct, and not as removed as the composer probably intended.

When the concert began the sun was shining brightly; there were many more people sitting on the deeply sloped lawn than in the pavilion. By 9.15, when the concert ended, a dewy chill had settled on the Blossom premises. But the cold did not dampen the audience’s enthusiasm for Holst’s masterpiece and the orchestra’s performance of it.

***11