Gianandrea Noseda, principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and former chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, made his Cleveland Orchestra debut this weekend in works by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, and the Cleveland première of Nino Rota’s Trombone Concerto, with the orchestra’s principal trombone Massimo LaRosa as soloist. All concerned turned in solid performances.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, composed in 1909, is as mysterious as the Arnold Böcklin painting of the same name that inspired the composer. Unlike many of Rachmaninov’s works, there are no long, memorable melodies. The work is, rather, a series of short, characteristic motifs and rhythms that are developed over its 20-minute duration. It opens with a quietly rocking rhythm, brooding in the low strings. There is a doleful melody high in the violins. Another motif is widely leaping, with intervals of fourths and fifths. The accompaniment tends to chromaticism. There are menacing brass chorales alternating with chant-like strings, all developed to a frenzy and a huge climax. Later Rachmaninov introduces one of his favorite themes, the 13th-century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), at first with just a few notes, then later expanded and developed as a separate melodic motif. The music tapers off to a disquieting conclusion. Noseda and the Clevelanders captured the brooding, haunted quality of the work, with thundering climaxes, yet subtle mystery in the quiet passages. The Isle of the Dead has only been performed three times before in The Cleveland Orchestra’s history, most recently over 20 years ago. On the basis of this performance, it deserves to be revived more often.

Nino Rota, Federico Fellini’s go-to composer, composed a number of concert works in addition to his dozens of film scores. His fifteen-minute Trombone Concerto (1966) is in three short movements and is scored for a smallish orchestra of strings, winds, horns and timpani, but no other brass instruments. This leaves the orchestral texture clear for the solo trombone, here played by fellow Italian Massimo LaRosa with burnished tone and stellar musicianship. Rota’s style is mid 20th-century neoclassical, reminiscent of Paul HIndemith in its harmonies and polyphony. The rhythms are sharp, with quick, pulsing accompanying figures. The soloist plays fanfares, as well as sustained melodies. LaRosa is an expressive player, with control over the entire range of his instrument. The second movement of the concerto exploits the trombone’s very high register. The third movement is a Fellini-esque romp, worthy of an Italian comedy. There were cheers and whistles for LaRosa’s performance.

After intermission Noseda led a stirring performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1945–47), begun shortly before the heart attack that led to Prokofiev’s long physical decline and, ultimately, to his death in 1953. There are hints of optimism at the end of World War II and glowing lyricism as found in Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, but as the composition of the symphony stretched over the next two years into the Stalin regime, there are many austere passages filled with dissonance – the hopefulness is short lived. The composer himself referred to the symphony as “austere and lyrical”. The orchestration has many striking effects throughout, including prominent parts for piano, solo horn and timpani, as well as a host of other solos.

It is a showpiece for the talent of The Cleveland Orchestra. An arresting passage in the middle of the first movement has a “ticking” chordal rhythmic motive in the solo piano, with brass and bass drum accents. A long, beautifully played horn solo introduced at the beginning of the movement returns at the end, replaced by threatening brass growls at the movement comes to a close. The slow second movement is expansive and more tuneful, beginning with an ecstatic passage for the full ensemble. Symmetrical in structure, the loud music is replaced by quieter, but still melodic, passages. A strident passage at the center of the movement marks its climax, with return to the full-orchestra texture of the beginning of the movement, but a quiet coda. The symphony is in many sections; sustaining the overall direction of the work is a challenge, but throughout all these changes, Noseda and the Clevelanders kept the overall architecture clear. The third movement is typical Prokofiev perpetual motion (again with prominent parts for piano and timpani), at times almost like a polka. The music becomes increasingly hectic, with a brief respite. Prokofiev is full of surprises, and the symphony ends without warning on a couple of huge staccato chords. It is a sure-fire ovation grabber, and the composer’s ploy, with the excellent performance of Gianandrea Noseda and The Cleveland Orchestra, succeeded as intended.