The audience was somewhat sparse in Severance Hall on Thursday evening, which was a shame, because guest conductor Robin Ticciati, in his second appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra, led a varied and pleasing program of his specialties, including Berlioz and Schumann. Ticciati is chief conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera; he has made several well-received recordings of this repertoire. But the winner in this concert was Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, in her Cleveland Orchestra debut, who gave a lush performance of Hector Berlioz's 1840s orchestral song cycle, Les nuits d'été. 

Karen Cargill © K. K. Dundas
Karen Cargill
© K. K. Dundas

Karen Cargill was a fine interpreter of Berlioz's six songs, which were first written for piano accompaniment and later orchestrated, with some of the songs transposed to different keys. She was able to use the many colors of her voice to communicate the texts by Berlioz's friend Théophile Gautier. Cargill's voice was at times clear and limpid, particularly in the first song, "Villanelle". As the songs progressed, her voice became darker-hued, with a richness and power not first evident. The third song "Sur les lagunes", a lament for a dead lover, was powerful and dramatic. Much of the tessitura for the songs in Les nuits d'été lies low, and there were times when the orchestral sound overwhelmed Cargill; at other times her diction was a bit mushy. But the overall effect was exquisite; for example, the tenderness of the end of the second song, "Le Spectre de la rose" and the poignant dreaminess of the last song, "L'île inconnue". Cargill can certainly claim a place in the line of distinguished British mezzos that includes Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker.

The concert opened with Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa's Meditation "To the Victims of Tsunami 3.11" (2012). The work is dedicated to the victims of the Hohoku earthquake that caused a tsunami and devastated Japan on 3 March 2011. It was the first performance of this work by the Cleveland Orchestra; they had, however, performed the world première of Hosokawa's Woven Dreams in 2010. This fifteen-minute piece is severely modernist, slow-moving, atmospheric, and the idea of devastation and shrieks of mourning are omnipresent. There are hints of indigenous Japanese music, but the emphasis in the music is more on evolving orchestral textures, density and dynamics than on melody. There are some intriguing moments: an alto flute solo, later taken up by the English horn; the eerie, dissipating string glissandi close to the end of the piece. Despite a committed performance by conductor and orchestra, it was a hard slog for many in the audience, and the response was not much more than tepid.

Robert Schumann composed his Symphony no. 3 in E-flat major, Op.97 ("Rhenish") in a burst of manic inspiration over a period of just five weeks in November and December 1850. Earlier that year Schumann and his wife Clara had moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf, a significant city on the Rhine River, to become conductor of the local orchestra. Schumann wrote his symphony, nicknamed "Rhenish", in honor of the Rhineland. Ticciati showed his affinity for this symphony with an excitement that captured Schumann's brashness and sense of drama. The performance was nicely detailed, although the big crescendos and diminuendos in the first movement were almost over the top. Throughout this performance the stars were the Cleveland Orchestra horn section, often in conjunction with the trumpet section. The trombones, with nothing to do but wait for their big moment in the fourth movement, joined that movement's procession with suitable solemnity. The so-called "Scherzo" second movement was not a typical fast-moving piece; it was not particularly swift, but instead was more gentle and flowing. The third movement glowingly melodic, with reminders of Schumann's skill as a Lieder composer. The processional of the fourth movement built in splendor, combined with odd, jagged string interjections. Ticciati whipped the jolly fourth movement into a final frenzy, again with the help of the amazing horn and trumpet sections.

In a non-musical quibble with the orchestra's program book, its editors lately have adopted an inconsistent convention of listing works with non-English titles in English translation first, and the original title in parentheses; thus, Berlioz's work became Summer nights (Les nuits d'été) on the program page. One can sympathize with the desire to be welcoming to all in the audience, but the fact remains that Berlioz was French, and this work is most commonly known by its French title, not in English. This practice just seems like an odd affectation.