A felicitous combination of conductor, musicians and repertoire made for a perfect summer evening on Saturday at the Blossom Music Festival, the summer home of The Cleveland Orchestra. James Gaffigan, a former TCO assistant conductor and now music director of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, was well-attuned to the immense skill of his former “home band”. Gaffigan offered an uncommon work in Samuel Barber’s Second Essay, plus two standards: Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor, with the brilliant Stephen Hough as soloist, and Sibelius' Second Symphony. It was all highly satisfying.

James Gaffigan © Daniela Kienzler
James Gaffigan
© Daniela Kienzler

Barber’s Second Essay is mostly in the composer’s style of free-floating tonal lyricism, with just enough dissonant drama to keep the music interesting. An extended fugue-like central passage develops to a climactic chorale, with martial patterns from the percussion, and strident high strings on open fifths, before ending in triumph. Gaffigan kept the music moving, but with nicely turned phrases, always maintaining the momentum pointed to the finale.

Stephen Hough was the star of the evening’s performance of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1831 and composed at about the same time as the “Italian” Symphony. The concerto may not be a timeless masterpiece with infinite hidden meaning, but it is a virtuoso showcase, with endless streams of brilliant scales and arpeggios, as well as some more lyrical passages. Hough's playing was fluent, especially impressive in the poetic Andante passages of the second movement. The improvisatory transition between the second and third movements was seamless. The finale had all the fleetness of mood of one of Mendelssohn’s scherzos, Hough and the orchestra sharing in textural delicacy. Gaffigan was an attentive accompanist, keeping the whole enterprise in perfect synchronization.

After the bows, Hough returned to the stage for an encore, Debussy’s Clair de lune that was notable for its sense of quiet, suspended time and subtle voicing of the musical lines. The large indoor/outdoor audience didn’t make a peep to interrupt Hough’s poetic performance.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major must be in the top tier of audience favorites, with its big tunes, drama and epic climaxes. Gaffigan and TCO milked it for all it was worth in Saturday evening’s performance, and I mean that as a compliment. The first movement was rhapsodic, but always well-controlled. Grand pauses – moments of silence – play an important role throughout the symphony, building tension even in silence. In the middle of the second movement, pristine soft string chords supported floating wind passages above, followed by an impeccable trumpet solo played by principal Michael Sachs. The third movement was almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness and energy, albeit with 20th-century harmony. The finale was full-throated, with splendid fanfares at the end. The booming of a distant fireworks display only added to the excitement of the symphony’s closing passages. In such a familiar work, it would have been easy to fall into routine; in this concert, Gaffigan and The Cleveland Orchestra succeeded in bringing fresh thoughts to a beloved favorite.