One of the most anticipated events of this summer’s Cleveland Orchestra Blossom season has been the debut of the acclaimed 22 year old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in concerts at Severance Hall and Blossom Music Center in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Based on Saturday evening’s concert, all of the breathless acclaim is not just hype; Grosvenor is a superbly talented and musical performer. And unlike some of the young steel-fingered virtuosi on the scene today, his technical achievements are put toward subtle musical ends rather than crashing through thousands of notes. On stage, Grosvenor gives the impression of being a bashful school boy – that is, until he sits down to play. Then he displays maturity that would be envied by many more experienced players.

Benjamin Grosvenor ©
Benjamin Grosvenor

It is ironic that the the great American jazz piano concerto was written by a Frenchman, Maurice Ravel, in his 1931 Concerto in G (although some musical elements of the concerto preceded its completion by as much as 20 years). Some might argue that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which preceded Ravel’s concerto by seven years, rightfully deserves that place of honor. Although it’s a favorite, Gershwin’s Rhapsody is a series of great tunes strung together by a slender thread; Ravel much more skillfully integrates the harmonies and rhythms of jazz. Grosvenor dispatched Ravel’s intricate passagework with aplomb, sometimes blending into the texture of the orchestra and other times bringing solo passages to the forefront. His piano sound is not huge; he is essentially a lyrical player. The slow second movement, a slow, Satie-like waltz, was mesmerizing. Cleveland Orchestra English horn player Robert Walters’s long solo was the epitome of elegant French mélodie. Conductor Johannes Debus was an excellent accompanist, especially in the sparkling perpetual motion of the third movement in which precision is a major challenge.

The concert opened with a suite of music selected by Debus from French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (literally “The Gallant Indies”; put into a modern context, the title might be “Extraterrestrials Visit Earth and Create a Sensation.”) Rameau’s goal was to charm his Parisian audience with the exoticism of Turks, Incas, Persians, and even indigenous North Americans. The various ethnic groups were presented in costume and music of the day, the intricate and artificial French Baroque style. Rameau was unquestionably a genius whose music is still being rediscovered by early music groups around the world. In this case, however, the choice of his music was curious. The sound of the modern orchestra (despite modest efforts at a period style, such as elimination of most vibrato from the strings and carefully planned and executed ornaments) would have been barely recognizable to Rameau. Although Debus used a chamber-sized orchestra, the balance between strings and winds was out of kilter, with the strings completely dominating the sound of the winds. The opera-ballets would have been performed in relatively small theaters, not in spaces as vast as the Blossom Pavilion and overlooking lawn. Still, if one accepted the performance “as is,” the music had charming moments, including the trumpet fanfares in the pair of minuets that represented the “savages of North America” and the “Air pour les amants qui suivent Bellone”, with its alternation of quick string passages with languorous flute solos.

After intermission the orchestra began with Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte. Although only a few minutes long, it seemed unnecessary and delayed getting to the real meat of the second half: Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Debus took seriously Rachmaninov’s Non allegro first movement tempo marking, with a more relaxed tempo than is sometimes heard in this piece. The movement had a muscular feel to it, almost deliberate, rather than being off to the races. The Symphonic Dances are in many ways a concerto for orchestra, with plenty of opportunities for the performers to show their skills. Time and again I was struck by Rachmaninov’s imaginative orchestrations: the extended saxophone solo (which here had some initial intonation problems); the string chorale with glittering percussion and harp accompaniment; in the second movement the sinister brass chorales with their crescendos and diminuendos; and in the third movement the mysterious bass clarinet solo against tremolo strings. The second movement was a swirling waltz, while the third movement was a riotous fantasy on the Dies irae chant, first appearing a few notes at a time, beginning quietly and developed until the whole theme is heard at the end with a pounding climax. The Rachmaninov dances were skillfully played, but the performance felt ordinary overall, especially as compared to the Ravel concerto, which was without doubt the highlight of this concert.