Sometimes the creations of humans, no matter how artistic, can’t compete with the drama of nature. Such was the case this past Saturday evening at Blossom Music Center, the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra (about a 45-minute drive south of Cleveland) in their first weekend of concerts for the season.

Franz Welser-Möst conducting The Cleveland Orchestra © Carl Juste/Iris Collective
Franz Welser-Möst conducting The Cleveland Orchestra
© Carl Juste/Iris Collective

As conductor Franz Welser-Möst began the opening work on the program, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in B flat major, the heavens let loose with a full-scale thunderstorm, with thunder, lightning, and wind-driven torrential rain that thoroughly drenched the audience members, hoping to have a pleasant evening sitting on the steep, grassy lawn that overlooks the concert pavilion and stage. Even from my seats under cover in the heart of the pavilion, some of the rain spray was blown in. But Welser-Möst and the band soldiered on.

The performance of Beethoven’s thorny late masterpiece emphasized the virtuosity of the orchestra. The counterpoint was originally conceived for string quartet; Beethoven later orchestrated the multi-section movement for string orchestra. The density of the polyphony requires utmost precision. Welser-Möst’s tempos for the fugal sections were quick, and in a performance by a lesser group could have been a muddy disaster. It is a bit difficult to comment on the more lyrical interludes that separate the fugal passages; they were more or less drowned out by the thunder and the rain, not to mention the physical distraction of seeing the sheets of rain bearing down on the crowd and the unintended waterfall cascading from the roof of the pavilion. It seemed like quite an excellent performance, despite the competition.

There was a rain delay following the Grosse Fuge, for the storm to diminish and for the audience and orchestra to regroup. It appeared that some in the violin sections were also catching the spray as well. Some lawn audience members were allowed to sit in vacant seats in the pavilion for the remainder of the concert.

One might expect thunder and lightning as an effect in the second work on the program, Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the brilliant soloist. Since his debut with the orchestra in 1991, Thibaudet has been a fairly regular soloist, but has not appeared here since 2009, so his return was welcome. Thibaudet is one of the few pianists on the international scene with both the requisite technical skill and the panache to carry off Liszt’s diabolical set of variations (or, in Liszt’s own description, “paraphrase”) on the Gregorian Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) from the Roman Requiem Mass. Arpeggios, two-handed glissandos, massive chords: all were tossed off as if they were the easiest thing in the book, yet Thibaudet also was able to show a more poetic side in the introspective variations. The chosen tempos were hair-raisingly fast; one kept wondering how Thibaudet was going to survive, but he did. A few notes might have been smudged a bit, but it didn’t matter; the total effect was overwhelming. Although the Totentanz is all about the piano soloist, The Cleveland Orchestra kept up their part of the bargain as involved accompanists.

After intermission was one of the bread-and-butter pieces of the repertoire: Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, “Eroica”, in a performance that might be characterized as efficient and better-than-satisfactory, if not thrillingly memorable. Franz Welser-Möst chose tempos that were brisk, sometimes on verging on feeling rushed, without a lot of time for introspection. But many phrases, especially in the first movement, were beautifully shaped. The intensely quiet beginning of the second movement, the funeral march, was almost drowned out by croaking frogs enjoying the twilight, post-storm dampness. The Scherzo of the third movement bounded joyously, a case where the conductor’s tempo seemed totally appropriate, especially when the horn trio comes in with their hunting calls. Welser-Möst barely finished the third movement before launching directly into the fourth, with its heroic variations. No matter what minor reservations one might have had about this performance, Beethoven’s genius shone through, and the layering of the theme upon itself at the close brought the concert to a thrilling conclusion.