The Cleveland Orchestra has a longstanding and vigorous educational outreach for all ages, from toddlers to senior citizens. Since 1968 the orchestra has sponsored the Kent/Blossom Music Festival, a five-week training institute for young professional musicians sponsored by Kent State University and the Cleveland Orchestra. The participants are competitively auditioned, and then for the duration of the institute are mentored by members of the Cleveland Orchestra. The closing event each year is a “side-by-side” concert in which the students are interspersed with the orchestra for a concert at the Blossom Music Festival. Saturday evening’s concert at Blossom was this year’s collaborative offering.

Hans Graf © Bruce Bennett
Hans Graf
© Bruce Bennett

The concert was in three segments, spanning three hours and opening with the students assembled as the Kent/Blossom Music Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by the Cleveland Orchestra’s Associate Conductor Brett Mitchell. Mitchell led credible performances of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 in F major and The Great Swiftness (2009–10) by the young American composer Andrew Norman. Norman’s work, inspired by Alexander Calder’s 1969 large public sculpture La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is tonal, angular, and attractive. For the Beethoven, Mitchell chose brisk tempos and clear textures, mirroring the model of the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra’s sponsoring organization.

The main body of the concert began after the first intermission. Guest conductor Hans Graf opened with Paul Hindemith’s brief "Overture" for his uncomposed ballet Cupid and Psyche. In the early 1940s Hindemith discussed creating a ballet for choreographer Leonide Fokine. Personal and artistic differences between the two men prevented the completion of the project, except for the overture. If there is any connection in Hindemith’s music to the Cupid and Psyche myth, it is not obvious. The opening music is jolly but with a dramatic edge. All of Hindemith’s musical trademarks are present: wandering tonality; mostly four-square rhythms; imaginative, strictly constructed counterpoint; and glittering orchestration. A slower central section brings an extended virtuosic solo violin obbligato, dispatched with aplomb by the orchestra’s associate concertmaster Jung-Min Amy Lee, in competition with the rest of orchestra. The swift, contrapuntal music of the opening returns, but the overture ends quietly. Hans Graf led a performance of clarity and wit that contained just enough Hindemith.

Hindemith’s description of his forces for Cupid and Psyche was “full chamber orchestra.” The number of players was reduced even further for Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A Major “Turkish”. Legendary violinist, violist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman, the evening’s soloist, made his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in August 1971 at Blossom Music Center, so this was an unofficial 45th anniversary performance.

Alas, Zukerman seemed oddly disengaged from the performance. There were moments of great beauty, particularly in the concerto’s cadenzas, but for much of the time, he seemed to be going through the motions. The passagework in the Allegro movements often sounded smudged and uneven, and the phrasing in the slow movement was blandly unimaginative. It failed to capture the grace of Mozart’s lines, where individual notes matter as part of longer phrases.

After a second intermission, the Kent/Blossom Music Festival Chamber Orchestra combined forces with the Cleveland Orchestra for a supersized performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor "Pathétique". This symphony was a good choice for the side-by-side performance, because, more than many, it can withstand just about anything. The immense space of the Blossom Music Center pavilion could handle the increased volume of sound. The intermingling of the less experienced younger performers with the seasoned professionals of the orchestra was largely successful. In fact, the sound and performance were often quite thrilling. There were moments of imprecision along the way, which is to be expected for a collective ensemble that doesn’t rehearse and perform together regularly.

Tchaikovsky’s beloved warhorse offers luxurious romantic excess with its glorious melodies and dramatic climaxes. Hans Graf led an intense performance, with emphasis on Tchaikovsky’s dramatic effects, with big crescendos, exaggerated diminuendos to almost inaudible levels. Although he always kept things moving, the performance never seemed rushed. The second movement waltz was elegant, although there seemed a tendency on the part of the orchestra to overplay the dynamics. The third movement featured sharply articulated figures, and the passagework was remarkably clean in the strings. The crescendo to the end provoked the usual enthusiastic round of applause. The end of the symphony was the epitome of pathos, just as it should be.