Any orchestral endeavor in Cleveland stands in the looming shadow of The Cleveland Orchestra, not just in an artistic sense, but also, in a relatively small city such as Cleveland, in a competition for audience. Various previous chamber orchestras have fallen to the exigencies of financing such a venture. The BlueWater Chamber Orchestra was founded in 2010 with the branding tagline “From Cleveland for Cleveland”. BlueWater is comprised of many of Cleveland’s best-known freelance musicians and also has an outreach program to bring orchestral music to Cleveland’s neighborhoods.

BlueWater Chamber Orchestra
BlueWater Chamber Orchestra

BlueWater began its four-concert 2013/14 season on 7 September, at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of St Ignatius High School. Violinist Diana Cohen was the soloist, with the orchestra’s artistic director Carlton R. Woods conducting most of the program. In a refreshing break from tradition, the concert was performed without intermission and lasted about 70 minutes, thus giving a concentrated listening experience, yet leaving time for audience members to pursue other Saturday evening engagements. It was an intriguing program, resulting in a generally satisfying experience.

Carlton Woods opened the program with Rossini’s overture to the now-forgotten 1812 opera La scala di seta (“The Silken Ladder”). This comic opera was one of six Rossini premièred in 1812, with a convoluted plot summarized in the program booklet. Mr Woods led a lively and cleanly played reading. In typical Rossini fashion, the overture begins with a slow introduction, with an extensive oboe solo, expressively played by Martin Neubert, followed by the expected brisk body of the piece, with strings and winds chirping away. It was a promising start for the concert.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 in D, “London”, conducted by BlueWater’s Associate Artistic Director Neil Mueller, was considerably less successful. Although notes were in place, tempos were appropriate, and the ensemble was together, there was no sparkle or lilt to the phrasing to raise the performance above a competent read-through. Not until the third movement Minuet–Trio did the expressivity lurking beneath the surface of Haydn’s notes emerge. Although the Breen Center theater was not purpose-built for music, the acoustics are remarkably amiable. In this performance, however, some of the balances were a bit off, with the trumpet interjections, which add color to the orchestral texture, overpowering the strings of the chamber orchestra.

All of these reservations were swept away when Mr Woods returned with soloist Diana Cohen for an incandescent performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Ms Cohen, a Cleveland native, is concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as an active chamber musician throughout the United States. In 2012 she co-founded a very successful and highly regarded summer chamber music festival in Cleveland.

Barber’s concerto, commissioned in 1939 by a Philadelphia soap tycoon for his adopted son, has become the best-known American violin concerto, striking in its lyricism and its technically brilliant finale. The orchestral accompaniment is for the same ensemble as the Haydn symphony, with the addition of piano. Although usually performed with a symphonic-size orchestra, the concerto worked brilliantly well with the chamber orchestra, which in this case was attentive to every turn of phrase and subtlety of pulse. Ms Cohen played the demanding solo part with exquisite lyricism, but yet “digging in” when the music required it. The second movement’s ecstatic melodic lines are first introduced by the solo oboe (again well played by Mr Neubert), later taken by other instruments and developed at length in the solo violin. The movement builds to a climax, followed by a short cadenza and a return to the quiet of the beginning. The perpetual motion of the third movement was a romp for all concerned, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

The progress of BlueWater Chamber Orchestra is worth watching in the future, and they seem to be well on their way to meet their printed mission of being “Northeast Ohio’s premier chamber orchestra dedicated to the performance of exciting and unusual repertoire”.