The Cleveland Orchestra as an ensemble was the sole focus of the second week of their 2021-22 season. Franz Welser-Möst led an unusual program of three works outside the standard repertoire, none of which had been previously performed in Severance Hall. There were no guest soloists.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Josef Strauss (1827-1870) was the younger brother of Johann Strauss II, the so-called “Waltz King” and composer of Die Fledermaus. Josef composed fistfuls of waltzes himself, but he was also an engineer and inventor. Heldengedichte (Heroic Poem), Op.87, was composed in 1860 as part of the unveiling ceremonies of a large equestrian statue of the Austrian Archduke Karl in Vienna’s Heldenplatz. The work follows a standard waltz formula: an introduction not in waltz meter, followed by several waltzes alternating slow and brisk tempi, with a repeat at the end of the first waltz. The introduction opened with a snare drum solo, brass fanfares and a string chorale, all of which have a patriotic fervor. The succeeding waltzes themselves were pleasant, but not timeless masterpieces. As an Austrian, Welser-Möst surely has the waltz idiom in his blood. The performance was enjoyable and sounded authentic as it swept along.

George Walker’s 2015 Sinfonia no. 5, “Visions” was one of the composer's last works before his death in 2018. The mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina inspired the 20-minute work. It requires a massive orchestra, including a huge percussion battery, and amplified voices and video. The video was omitted at this performance, and there was only a single narrator: Tony F. Sias, President and CEO of Cleveland’s Karamu House, America’s oldest Black producing theater. The texts were short fragments and declamations, mostly observations of nature and other impressionistic exclamations, including the view of the Charleston harbor where the slave trade took place. Sias was generally inaudible over the thick texture of the orchestra. His voice did not seem to be amplified, and it was nearly impossible to understand the texts. The music itself was spikily dissonant, with motivic fragments moving from one orchestral section to another, often slow-moving and monumental. It was a worthy performance, yet the complexity of the music failed to inspire this listener.

On the other hand, Korngold’s rarely played Symphony in F sharp major, Op.40 was dazzling from beginning to end, both in the composer’s audacious inclusion of music from several of his well-known film scores and the virtuosic nature of the composition itself. Korngold completed the symphony in 1952, and it was panned by critics at its premiere in Vienna in two years later. The composer’s late-Romantic musical style was completely unfashionable in the Modernist 1950s, bathed in the frigid atonal waters of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and their successors. Although in the last few years the symphony has been performed somewhat more frequently, it takes a top-notch orchestra to really carry it off. 

Korngold’s sole symphony has countless rewards in the many orchestral solos, particularly the clarinet and a haunting piccolo solo in the Adagio third movement. He develops the materials organically from the basic thematic materials, especially in the sly way he incorporates his own music. Korngold was a brilliant orchestrator, with his work in 1930s Hollywood paying dividends here. Precision and ensemble transparency are required throughout. The Finale: Allegro incorporates the popular war song Over There  first disguised but then more overtly. This was an absolutely first-rate performance, rewarding the slimmer-than-usual crowd.