Conductor Fabien Gabel has made no secret of his desire to promote the cause of French music the world over – nearly always including a hefty dose of French repertoire on his programs. This concert with The Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center was no exception, with three French pieces presented alongside a Russian concerto.

Fabien Gabel © Gaétan Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gaétan Bernard

The four works on the program were all composed within 25 years of each other (between 1904 and 1928), including one rarity – the symphonic etude Le Palais hanté by Florent Schmitt. Interestingly, this was the earliest creation on tonight’s program, yet it came from the pen of a composer who outlived the other three – in two cases by decades.

Inspired by the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, The Haunted Palace is a tone picture that gives highly effective voice not only to the poetry’s literal meaning, but also its metaphysical undercurrent (mental illness). From the pensive bass clarinet solo that opened the piece, through passages alternating between beauty and strangeness, and lastly the manic whirlwind of sound as the spirits rush out of the dwelling, it is a stunning piece of music. In bringing it to life, Gabel conjured up a musical vision that was gripping in its intensity. This was TCO's first time presenting the score, and the players did the music full justice, including navigating some particularly tricky timpani and cymbal parts in the percussion section.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in D flat major is the perfect example of an early genius at work. Completed in 1912 when the composer was just 21 years old, this short concerto (barely more than 15 minutes long) possesses unmistakable traces of Prokofiev’s career-spanning unique sound. Indeed, the stylistic similarities to the composer’s more famous Third Piano Concerto are uncanny.

Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen, making his debut with TCO, tore into the opening octave flourishes even as the orchestra proclaimed the cinematic “big theme” – one that reappeared at the end of the concerto with equal exuberance. The more introspective second theme was beautifully contrasted. That and the middle Andante assai movement of the concerto were particularly winsome, including dreamy clarinet and silky horn passages.

One of the challenges for pianists playing Prokofiev 1, which contains so much of the composer’s characteristically propulsive pianistic writing, is to keep the music sounding free-flowing. Happily, Pohjonen kept the busy fingerwork lithe rather than labored – and note-perfect as well. Gabel and the Clevelanders provided wonderfully balanced musical support, in a performance that had everything coming together just right.

Following the intermission, Gabel presented two staples of the French orchestral repertoire. Ibéria from Debussy’s Images was a feast for the ears, with just enough Spanish flavor to give it flair without sounding garish or kitschy. The sound was crystalline in the opening Rues et chemins movement, with stellar woodwind solo passages. Razor-sharp percussion provided just the right splash of additional color, too.

If anything, Les parfums de la nuit was even more atmospheric; one could really feel the heat and humidity and breathe the fragrant aromas this movement delivers – doubtless helped by the “natural” setting at the Blossom Music Center (replete with chirping crickets) as the perfect complement to the music. The concluding Matin d'un jour de fête movement was played with real panache. Gabel made sure all instrumental lines were clearly heard, even as he introduced some interesting tempo variances. The result was a truly special interpretation of Ibéria, with flawless execution by the Cleveland players.

Closing out the concert was the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Ravel’s Boléro. Despite being the most recent work, it actually sounds the least “modern” of the four pieces on the program. With its “endlessly repeated” theme, one might think that Boléro would vary little from performance to performance. But of course, often that isn’t the case – and it wasn’t so tonight. I last heard TCO present Boléro two years ago under the direction of Gabel’s fellow French conductor Lionel Bringuier. The same orchestra … nearly all the same musicians … and yet the performances were different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Gabel allowed more “bloom” with several of the solo passages – particularly the clarinet and saxophone – as well as projecting a somewhat more expansive reading overall.

Did these interpretative choices make a difference to the Blossom Center audience one way or the other? Not really; regardless of how it’s presented, Boléro is all-but-guaranteed to bring the house down – and that it did tonight. It was a highly satisfying end to an evening of music-making by one of America’s great orchestras under the baton of a conductor who is a tireless – and welcome – ambassador for the music of his native country.