The Cleveland Orchestra was in top form at its Severance Hall concert on Thursday, under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero, with the orchestra’s concertmaster William Preucil as soloist in the world première of Stephen Paulus’ Violin Concerto no. 3. Mr. Guerrero is the Music Director of the Nashville Symphony and is the Principal Guest Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra Miami (the orchestra’s annual multi-week winter residence in Miami, Florida). As such, Mr. Guerrero works with the orchestra regularly, and he seemed to have more rapport with the musicians than most of the one-week guests who appear. Indeed, this was the most dynamic performance that the group has given so far this season, full of passion, but sensitive to the details of the music.

Stephen Paulus © Sharolyn Hagen Photography
Stephen Paulus
© Sharolyn Hagen Photography

The concert opened with Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of his 1911 ballet Pétrouchka. The 1947 version reduced the orchestration somewhat, bringing out more clarity of texture. Mr. Guerrero led a witty, almost chamber music-like performance. In the first movement, “The Shrovetide Fair”, there was a cinematic feeling to the music, with abrupt changes of scene from the bustle of the fair to more intimate close-ups, but then a return to the bigger scene. Throughout the four movements there were plenty of opportunities for the Cleveland Orchestra’s soloists to shine, especially Joela Jones, who played the extensive solo piano part with muscularity and brilliance. One was struck in this performance just how much musical material Stravinsky borrowed from other sources: Russian folk songs, late 19th-century Viennese waltzes and Turkish-style marches. In the end, we are reminded that this is all a puppet show, and the scenes we have observed are imaginary.

American composer Stephen Paulus was born in 1949, and now lives in St Paul, Minnesota. He has composed several works for violinist William Preucil, especially earlier in the violinist’s career as concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony and first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet. The new Violin Concerto no. 3 was composed in 2012 on commission by the Cleveland Orchestra. Mr. Paulus has the uncanny ability of writing music that seems at once fresh, yet slightly familiar, in a clearly extended harmonic style. At times there is a glimmer of Aaron Copland’s American harmonic idiom, but Mr. Paulus’ compositional palette is much broader. The orchestration is always sensitive to the violin solo – many of the soloists passages are accompanied by smaller groups of the orchestra – but Mr Paulus is not afraid of a big climax. There is the occasional shimmer of twinkling percussion complementing the orchestration.

Each of the three movements of the concerto is broken down into many smaller segments. In a lesser performance, all of these tempo changes could have become disjointed, but Mr. Preucil and the other Cleveland musicians kept the momentum going. The second movement was especially striking, with an achingly beautiful violin melody over a slow-moving accompaniment of descending scales and bittersweet harmonies. The material is developed at length to a climax, with big chunks of the descending, walking accompaniment, but ends with a very soft violin solo in the style of a Celtic folk song interspersed with an ethereal flute solo. This second movement was worth the price of admission. The first two movements were essentially lyrical; the third movement was a perpetual motion, with some striking effects: a passage for solo violin accompanied by solo marimba, percussion and timpani. After considerable development, the concerto ends on a big major chord. Stephen Paulus was present for the performance, and he, Mr. Preucil and Mr. Guerrero received a very warm reception from the audience.

The last work on the program was a return to the very familiar, Maurice Ravel’s colorful tribute to Spanish culture and music, Rapsodie Espagnole. Mr. Guerrero led a lush performance of the four short movements. In the sensuous descending passages of the opening “Prélude à la nuit”, one could almost feel the the shimmering heat of a sultry Spanish evening. The “Malagueña” was subtle orchestral color, with a haunting English horn solo, played here by Robert Walters, bringing the movement to a close. Those expecting Ravel’s “Habanera” to match Bizet’s famous sexy aria would be disappointed. Written thirteen years before the rest of Rapsodie Espagnole, Ravel’s movement strips the habanera rhythm down to its essence, weary, not sexy. It is the last movement, “Feria”, that Ravel lets loose with exuberance – an all-out Spanish festival. Again here, we have brief remnants of the descending scales that we heard at the beginning of the opening movement.

Mr. Guerrero and the Cleveland Orchestra built to a thrilling climax, bringing to conclusion a very successful concert with a worthy new addition to the violin concerto repertoire.