If there’s one constant in Northeast Ohio over the Thanksgiving weekend, surely it must be the dependably fulfilling program from The Cleveland Orchestra. This year’s offering presented major 20th century scores of Stravinsky and Britten, both from when the composers were youthful twentysomethings, poised to make waves in the musical world. Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was conductor Thomas Søndergård, recently tapped to assume music directorship of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Thomas Søndergård
© Martin Bubandt

Invoking Beethoven’s archetypal Violin Concerto, Britten’s 1939 work in the medium also opens with the timpani, introducing a rhythmic gesture that would recur throughout. Violin soloist Stefan Jackiw entered with a strained lyricism. Although hardly a showpiece, the work made fierce technical demands easily surmounted by the violinist: melodies leaning high into the instrument’s range, dense thickets of double stops. Livelier material provided some contrast, but the first movement faded away at the top of the violin’s register.

A central Scherzo was feisty and animated, generally a rhythmically driven affair. Matters were lightly tinged with Spanish influence, a nod toward dedicatee Antonio Brosa, and a cascading passage strikingly scored for piccolo and tuba juxtaposed extremities. In the cadenza that bridged the finale, Jackiw offered technical dexterity and bold projection. An extended Passacaglia closed, its theme unfurling in a myriad of guises. Despite the work’s outward austerity, Jackiw did much to probe its lyrical core, retreating to a quiet conclusion. 

A fascinating tidbit in the program notes catalogued the six occasions Stravinsky himself conducted The Cleveland Orchestra, along with his glowing assessment of this ensemble. When hearing his Firebird in its complete ballet version, one is confronted with the vast amount of remarkable material excised for the more well-worn suites of highlights that would follow. While the subsequent Rite of Spring may have sealed the composer’s reputation as an iconoclast, The Firebird in its original scope and orchestration proved to be hardly less revolutionary.

Novel orchestral effect was abundant from the onset, with the mysteriously enchanting opening material presented in the basses. Feathery orchestral plumage brought to life the titular being in Dance of the Firebird, while The Firebird’s Supplication brimmed with lush, late-Romantic harmony and fine solo outings from violin (Peter Otto), flute (Joshua Smith) and oboe (Frank Rosenwein). The Princesses' Game with the Golden Apples offered a lighter moment in its quicksilver playfulness, countered by a songful clarinet (Afendi Yusuf).

Khorovod of the Princesses was plaintively lyrical, invoking Russian folk melodies, but a darker realm was entered when Prince Ivan Penetrates Kashcheï’s Castle, with matters abrasive if not ferocious. A startling strike of the bass drum marked Infernal Dance of All Kashcheï’s Subjects, and the shrill E-flat clarinet and xylophone made matters all the more intense. Lullaby was by turn distilled to quietude, and in due course, an amber horn introduced the rejuvenating theme of the finale, closing in brassy glory. Though there were moments when the narrative energy seemed to ebb, this was nonetheless a compelling case for the unabridged version, and a strong first local impression from Søndergård.