Even the usually cooling trees and grass of Blossom Music Center couldn’t do much to make northern Ohio weather more pleasant this weekend, with high humidity and temperatures over 90°F (32°C). The weather and perhaps general exhaustion after hosting the Republican National Convention in Cleveland seemed to have kept audience numbers down a bit for Saturday evening’s Cleveland Orchestra concert. It was a shame, because the program turned out to be a good one. There was a Scandinavian theme, with works by Grieg and Sibelius, as well as Stravinsky’s reworking of Norwegian folksongs.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet © Harrison Parrott
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Harrison Parrott

The guest conductor was Jahja Ling, music director of the San Diego Symphony. Ling is an audience favorite in Cleveland, from his more than 20 years on the conducting staff of the Cleveland Orchestra, covering the Dohnányi era through the beginning of the Welser-Möst regime. With his long association with The Cleveland Orchestra, Ling knows the orchestra better than most conductors. His programs are scrupulously well-prepared, and he seems to inspire consistently excellent performances from the orchestra. Such was the case here, especially in a searing performance of Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

It seems almost axiomatic that pairing famous composers (with the possible exception of Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, or in more recent times, Philip Glass) with movie producers is a recipe for frustration for all concerned. During the 1930s and 1940s, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, both living in Los Angeles, were engaged to write scores for films. None of the projects came to fruition. In Stravinsky’s case, it was to be a film about the Nazi invasion of Norway. The composer would not agree to the alterations of his music required by the producers, and he withdrew the music. He retooled his arrangements of Norwegian folksongs into what is now a concert rarity, Four Norwegian Moods (1942).

The four short movements give the folk music the full Stravinskyan neoclassical treatment: chugging, slightly off-kilter rhythms, melodic material more in the winds and brass than in the string sections, and relatively transparent orchestrations, often reduced to just a few instruments. The Cleveland Orchestra’s performance made a convincing case for these attractive pieces. The “Intrada” was a march featuring horn melodies in the style of fanfares, interspersed with duets between bassoon and clarinet. The second movement “Song” contains a long mournful melody for solo English horn. The “Wedding Dance” was full of vigor, then becoming a more relaxed waltz. The final “Cortège” was a quirky processional, with many tempo and rhythmic changes. Jahja Ling and The Cleveland Orchestra delineated the textures with clarity and the rhythms with precision. The many soloists were excellent, especially the English horn in the second movement.

Edvard Grieg’s well-worn Piano Concerto in A minor remains an audience favorite for its melodic richness and brilliant solo part. It needs a charismatic soloist with unlimited technique and stylistic finesse, both of which are characteristics French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has in abundance. Grieg’s shameless manipulation of his themes for maximum audience effect can just seem cheesy, but Thibaudet played with extraordinary variety and subtlety. The first movement cadenza took on orchestral proportions as it built to a climax. The softer sections were beautifully voiced. The flute solo introducing the second theme of the third movement sang out with edgy, round tone, matched later by the piano. Ling and the Cleveland Orchestra were excellent support for Thibaudet. All performances of Grieg’s concerto should aspire to this level of musicality.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet returned for an exquisite solo encore, Franz Liszt’s serene Consolation No. 3 in D-flat. It was performed simply, tenderly, never reaching much more than a mezzo-forte dynamic, with sensitively flexible phrasing. This alone was worth the price of admission.

Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor is not the most popular of the composer’s symphonies. It’s structure is not readily apparent, with themes stated and then not reappearing until much later. It is almost Brucknerian in its building on blocks of musical material, then pausing and beginning anew on something else. It must be one of the few symphonies to feature the timpani not just in a supporting role, but as a fully integrated bearer of musical themes. In this performance there were many magical moments, such as a passage in the first movement that combines an almost inaudible clarinet solo with harp arpeggios, beginning a major orchestral crescendo. The trio scampered along in dialogue between winds and strings. At the end, after a thunderous orchestral texture, the symphony ends on two quiet string pizzicati. Jahja Ling kept the proceedings aimed in the right direction, with many opportunities for soloists to shine. It was a blazing performance that matched the evening weather.