Far away from the urban bustle lies Blossom Music Center, The Cleveland Orchestra’s summer home, a natural amphitheater situated within the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The weather gods co-operated amply Saturday evening, and the picturesque setting was made all the more so by an enticing program with Gustavo Gimeno at the podium. Currently principal conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Gimeno’s return Cleveland engagement was well-received in repertoire that played to his strengths: an eclectic selection, with a clear bent towards his home country of Spain.

Gustavo Gimeno © Marco Borggreve
Gustavo Gimeno
© Marco Borggreve

Blossom audiences were transported to the Iberian Peninsula from the opening, a raucous account of Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. Beginning unassumingly in the pizzicato strings, the primary themes were finely presented in the winds and the orchestra quickly swelled to great vigor, the castanets adding a quintessentially Spanish shading. A mysterious central section offered some contrast and did little to detract from the overall kinetic energy Gimeno brought forth.

The balance of the first half was filled by Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor, shifting the spotlight to soloist Johannes Moser. After a declamatory introduction in the orchestra, Moser’s dark-hued entrance was grounded in the cello's low register, and he maintained an intensely lyrical tone even while sailing through the rapid scales and other technical demands of the movement. Mournful strings opened the central slow movement, and Moser’s lines were equally elegiac, displaying the beauty of his instrument. A quicksilver scherzo of sorts was subsumed within the movement, giving the work a larger, nearly symphony dimension, and perhaps echoing what Tchaikovsky did in the analogous movement of his First Piano Concerto, written just one year prior. Beginning with a stately monologue in the cello over a drone (as indeed, all movements in this concerto began slowly), the finale accelerated in due course towards a lively and spirited conclusion.

Following intermission, Gimeno turned attention to suites from two particularly colorful ballet scores. Instead of Falla’s orchestral version of El amor brujo, Gimeno offered his own suite of some seven excerpts, slightly and thoughtfully reordered, and compacted to about fifteen minutes. While much of works’ essential character and important moments were nonetheless preserved, it still felt a bit too cut-and-paste, and one wished more ambitious programming allowed for the longer work as envisioned by the composer.

Still, this did little to detract from the orchestra’s unmistakably Spanish playing, apparent from the first bars of the boisterous “Introducción y Escena”. In contrast to the score’s orchestral brilliance, the harp and piano added some darker colorings to “En la cueva", while “Danza del terror” was marked by the virtuosity of rapidly repeated notes in the trumpet. “Pantomima” began in a brassy rambunctiousness that was later distilled to graceful solo passages from principal cello Mark Kosower and concertmaster Peter Otto. For maximum audience impact, Gimeno’s suite aptly closed with the durable “Danza ritual del fuego”, and a sinewy oboe line from Frank Rosenwein built matters to a conclusion clearly calculated to pack a punch.

Another work deeply steeped in folklore, this time from the other end of the European continent, closed the program, namely, Stravinsky’s Firebird, presented in its familiar 1919 suite. Ominously beginning in the low strings, the weight of the brass hinted early on at the work’s massive scale. The more lively “Dance of the Firebird” vividly brought to life the fluttering of the titular avian, while “Round Dance of the Princesses” exuded an ineffably sweet innocence in the winds. “Infernal Dance of Kashcheï” began abruptly and was given with a menacing intensity and some particularly impressive playing in the percussion (a section to which Gimeno was perhaps able to offer a unique insight, having previously served as principal percussionist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for over decade). A much-needed respite was found in the “Berceuse”, with a meandering line in the bassoon grounded by the harp’s ostinato. The music became barely audible until the mellifluous horn solo emerged from the ashes, signaling the finale’s glorious rebirth, shimmering and radiant.