Severance Hall was full on Saturday evening for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of one of the hottest young conductors on the scene today: Robin Ticciati. Not yet 30, Mr Ticciati is conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Music Director-designate at Glyndebourne. The soloist, Macedonian-born pianist Simon Trpčeski, was also making his Severance Hall debut, although he appeared with the orchestra at Blossom Music Center in summer 2009.

Robin Ticciati © Marco Borggreve
Robin Ticciati
© Marco Borggreve

Anatoly Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake was an innocuous opener. From its opening low bass pedal emerged some some striking orchestral effects, strongly resembling those of Debussy and the other French impressionists, but with a much more chromatic harmonic style. Despite expert playing from the Cleveland Orchestra, the five-minute work shimmered in the distance like a mirage, but never really got anywhere.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor with Mr Trpčeski completed the first half of the concert. This was a highly orchestra-centric reading, with the piano soloist often merged into the texture of the orchestra, and almost inaudible. One was reminded that most of the melodic material is given to the orchestra, with the piano providing virtuosic filigree around the edges. Mr Trpčeski’s performance in the second movement was supremely lyrical, especially in the passages where Rachmaninov deploys the orchestra an instrument or two at a time, with the piano accompanying the solo flute or clarinet. In the middle of the second movement cadenza, that crime for which a special place in hell is reserved was committed: a mobile phone rang with an unusually obnoxious ringtone. It happened just as Mr Trpčeski was at a cadence, and he paused for a moment to glare at the audience; if his stare had been laser beams, half of the first floor audience would have been vaporized. But then he proceeded with the transition from the second movement into the closing third movement.

One had the feeling throughout this performance of Mr Trpčeski’s sensitive musicality; he was never just blasting his way through this famous warhorse concerto. He was, however, able to deliver a big sound when called upon, for example, in the big tunes in the first and third movements. Ticciati and the orchestra provided a very robust account of the score, and apart from a couple of smudgy ensemble details, they emphasized the most romantic elements.

Trpčeski and Ticciati were greeted with a standing ovation at the end of the concerto. Trpčeski responded with a solo encore in recognition of his Macedonian heritage – Pande Shahov’s rousing and jazzy In Struga, an arrangement of a Macedonian folk song.

Following intermission Mr Ticciati returned for Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major. The symphony was composed in 1901, only a year after the Rachmaninov piano concerto, but they are worlds apart in their aesthetic impact. Rachmaninov wears his Romantic emotions on his sleeve; despite being one of the most famous symphonies in the repertoire, the Sibelius seems enigmatic, for instance, in his odd doling-out of bits and pieces of his thematic material over an extended introduction before finally deploying what would normally be identified as an exposition.

There is a “pulsing” rhythm that returns throughout the movement, with the material fragmented and separated by dramatic silences. Indeed, these pauses return later in the symphony – In this performance, these mid-movement silences sometimes were a Cageian cacophony of audience coughing and throat clearing. The lyrical, but austere, second movement again featured the technique of silence as a delimiter. In this performance, the brass chorale that marks the movement’s climax was followed suddenly by magical, very soft strings with flutes in undulating chords. The third movement scherzo was almost Mendelssohnian in its fleetness. In the middle “trio” section, principal oboist Frank Rosenwein was featured in a folk-like solo melody of many repeated notes, each one with its own distinctive articulation and phrasing. There was a return to the quick scherzo tempo, which transitions into the symphony’s fourth movement. We finally hear one of the most famous themes in all symphonic literature, which Sibelius develops at length, eventually combining the movement’s first and second themes in quiet alternation. The texture builds in intensity to a triumphant ending. At the final cadence it almost seemed like Mr Ticciati was holding the orchestra back; the sound was full and round, but not raucous or blasting. It was an unusual effect that held the audience’s attention for a brief few sections after the final release before the applause began.

As a young conductor at the beginning of his career, one would not expect Robin Ticciati to have the last word in the interpretations of these enduring orchestral favorites. It takes nerves of steel to make a debut with a famous orchestra with well-known repertoire. Yet Mr Ticciati led worthy and convincing performances of both Rachmaninov and Sibelius, and his is a career to follow in coming years.