The opening of the Cleveland Orchestra’s season at the Blossom Music Center is always anticipated for its combination of the pastoral setting of the orchestra’s summer home about 45 minutes southeast of Cleveland and repertoire that is generally well-known, but with the welcome feature of conductors and soloists who often have not previously performed with the orchestra. This year’s announced opening headliners, conductor Jaap van Zweden and violin soloist Renaud Capuçon, were both indisposed. Fortunately, former Houston Symphony music director Hans Graf and up and coming Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich stepped in on short notice to perform the previously announced program. Although both have performed before with the orchestra, the late notice undoubtedly added an additional layer of stress. Both Graf and Hadelich turned in fine performances for a very large and appreciative audience on a perfect summer evening.

Augustin Hadelich © Rosalie O'Connor
Augustin Hadelich
© Rosalie O'Connor

In Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien one is grateful for the composer’s gift of melody, because those memorable tunes are repeated throughout the piece. After the opening bugle fanfares, the slow mournful melody seems Italian by way of Moscow, but then becomes a folk-like tune with a brass-band-style accompaniment, and eventually a madcap tarantella. It is the epitome of the orchestral curtain-raiser. Hans Graf and the orchestra provided a straightforward reading, with detail and lightness.

The number of violinists available to step in on short notice to take on Sibelius’s challenging Violin Concerto in D minor must be quite small, but Augustin Hadelich was more than equal to the task. He has recently released a recording of the Sibelius concerto, so it is clearly in his current repertoire. It is a concerto requiring extraordinary technical skill and stamina; the soloist plays almost constantly, and there are relatively few purely orchestral passages. The first movement’s extended cadenza is interrupted by the orchestra before it’s natural conclusion. Hans Graf handled the orchestra with tasteful restraint, and there were only a couple of passages in which the ensemble between soloist and orchestra seemed a bit tentative. The second movement, with its long solo violin lines filled with harmonic complications, suspensions and resolutions, was especially beautiful. The finale was a romp, with the heavier polonaise rhythm alternating with a quicker dance. After several bows Hadelich returned to the stage for a solo encore, Paganini’s Caprice no. 9 in E major, with its cascades of virtuoso figures. The young violinist showed his talent and musicianship in these performances, and we should expect much of his future career.

Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op.95 (“From the New World”) is one of the most beloved in the repertoire for its abundance of melodic invention and for Dvořák’s filtering of American folk music through middle-European sensibility. Despite ongoing controversy about Dvořák’s knowledge of the American folk music that influenced the symphony, Cleveland Orchestra program annotator Peter Laki points out that only one authentic advisor to Dvořák, the African-American singer, composer, and arranger Harry T. Burleigh, can be verified. Whether authentic or invented, the music is memorable, especially the long English horn solo in the second movement (and, in the third movement here, what seemed to be symphonic music’s loudest and most prominent triangle part, although it may have been just a quirk of Blossom’s acoustics). Hans Graf led a nicely shaped performance, which from my place fairly close to the performers in the Blossom Pavilion, uncovered several orchestral details not always heard. The phrasing had a singing quality, with moments of rubato, in a performance that always had a sense of forward motion. Indeed the famous second movement Largo never lingered or became sentimental. That bane of modern concert-going, a mobile phone ringing, managed to break the mood at the quietest moment of the movement. The closing Allegro con fuoco had a sense of urgency from its beginning, with lovely moments of contrasting repose. Despite its status of being among one of the most-played works in the symphonic repertoire, this performance of the “New World” Symphony showed again why it is famous: it brings pleasure to audiences.

After the concert, there was a lavish fireworks display in celebration of the American Independence Day holiday weekend. The part of the crowd that left during the fireworks created an extra benefit of lessening the usual mass of traffic all wanting to leave the Blossom grounds at the same time.