It was sweltering at the Blossom Music Center, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, on Saturday evening, August 4. Normally an oasis of coolness, the temperatures were hovering in the high 80s (31°C) at the 8:00 concert time. Even the orchestra members dispensed with their usual white formal jackets and ties. But the heat did not prevent brilliant music-making, with James Gaffigan as the guest conductor. Mr. Gaffigan, chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and with other ongoing associations in Cologne and Glyndebourne, is a Cleveland favorite, having been an assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 2003-06. Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, winner of the gold medal at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, made his Cleveland Orchestra debut in this concert with a lyrical yet virtuosic performance of Frédéric Chopin's Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor.

Daniil Trifonov
Daniil Trifonov

The Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was a somber beginning for a summer evening's concert. From the intense opening chords in the low strings, we are aware of the pain of the mortally wounded Tristan. The chromatic harmonies built, echoed and eventually faded away through the Blossom pavilion. Especially notable in this performance was the mournful cor anglais solo played by Robert Walter depicting the shepherd on the Breton coast where Tristan lies dying. Mr. Walter stood removed from the rest of the orchestra at the back of the stage behind the violins.

Chopin's Piano Concerto no. 1 is an early work, written before Chopin left Warsaw for Paris and what would be his home for the rest of his brief life. The concerto exploits early 19th-century improvements in the piano, especially the newly added octaves at the high end of the register, bringing brilliance to the instrument. The concerto is filled with cascading passagework, which Mr. Trifonov dispatched with ease and elegance. His performance was musically and rhythmically sensitive, especially attuned to the rubato that makes Chopin's music sing. The second movement Romanze could almost stand by itself as a solo piece. Mr. Gaffigan and The Cleveland Orchestra were amiable accompanists, although the orchestra's part in this concerto is not particularly imaginative.

Somewhat unusually for Cleveland Orchestra concerts, Daniil Trifonov offered an encore after the conclusion of the concerto, an astonishing solo transcription by Guido Agosti of the "Danse Infernale" from Stravinsky's Firebird. After the serene charm of the Chopin, Mr. Trifonov let loose and displayed the technical chops that we expect from young virtuosi. It was a stunning and demonic performance. This is an exceptional young artist at the beginning of what should be a long and brilliant career.

After a restrained first half, followed by intermission, James Gaffigan led the Cleveland Orchestra in an impassioned set of excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Gaffigan chose the movements from Prokofiev's three ballet suites. "Montagues and Capulets" portrays in stark and dissonant music the feud between the two families. "Juliet, the Young Girl" features light, scampering music in the strings, separated by slower passages with a tender melody first heard in the solo clarinet. "Masks" is a jocular march, with a bright and colorful orchestration. "Romeo and Juliet" depicts the young lovers in tender music, first as if suspended in time and space, but becoming more lush and expansive as the movement continues. "The Death of Tybalt" is rhythmic, scherzo-like with chromatic string writing representing the duel, then changing to a dirge-like march. The last movement, "Romeo at the grave of Juliet and the death of Juliet," brings back musical themes heard earlier, but in much more tragic music. The set ends quietly.

In the Prokofiev excerpts Mr. Gaffigan unleashed the power of the Cleveland Orchestra. He is an athletic and dramatic conductor who threw himself into this music. The orchestra responded in kind to Prokofiev's searing harmonies and sometimes jagged rhythms with full-blooded romanticism. Although the full orchestra was impressive, it was the quiet and lyric passages that were most arresting, especially in the fourth and sixth movements. Those closing, still moments of Juliet's death transported the listener to the heart of Shakespeare's tragedy.

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