The Cleveland Orchestra, with their Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, opened its new season with an unusual combination of the very familiar (Sibelius’ Second Symphony) and the relatively unfamiliar (Charles Ives’ Third symphony and Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra). It was an intriguing program that showed orchestra and conductor in excellent form.

Paul Jacobs © Fran Kaufman
Paul Jacobs
© Fran Kaufman

Ives composed his Symphony no. 3: The Camp Meeting in 1904, but it was not performed until 1946. When the symphony was first performed it surely seemed like an odd hodgepodge of Americana thrown into a pot and dumped out in no particular order, a chaotic mess. With all the musical invention of the intervening 70 years, it now seems quite mild, although still arresting in its construction, with Methodist hymns bumping up against camp songs, and lyrical melodies set against obbligatos in conflicting tonalities. The overall aspect of the piece is one of that lost time of American pre-war contentment and civic happiness. The first movement is based largely upon the tune “Azmon” (“O for a thousand tongues to sing”) among a stream of other not so easily identifiable tunes. Later “Azmon” is combined with Charles Converse’s gospel song “What a friend we have in Jesus”. The second movement combines lively, simple tunes layered upon one another, assembled and disassembled, a musical stream of consciousness. The third movement (“Communion: Largo”) moves in simultaneous layers interrupted by abrupt changes. “Azmon” reappears in the midst of the activity for a majestic climax that fades away, ending with yet another hymn “Just as I am, without one plea” as church chimes ring the hour from off-stage. In this performance The Cleveland Orchestra tamed the symphony; it sounded beautiful and refined throughout, with transparency in all the complex textures. But it seemed staid and lacking Ives’s sense of quirky fun.

Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra was written for his composition teacher Nadia Boulanger’s first American tour as organist and conductor. It is imaginative, but is clearly the work of a young composer still feeling his way. The orchestra is large, but is often sparsely orchestrated, with only one or two instrumental sections playing. The solo organ thus can play quite softly without being outmatched by the orchestra. American organist Paul Jacobs was the fine soloist in this performance, on Severance Hall’s large EM Skinner organ (1930, restored 1998–2000). The work is not an organ concerto as such; the organ is often combined into the texture of the orchestra, more like Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony than Poulenc’s concerto. Both the first and third movements are slow, building to monumental climaxes.

The second movement is a scherzo, with jittery, jazz-inspired rhythmic complexity. The organ console was placed on the partially raised orchestra pit floor in front of the stage, directly behind the conductor. Eye contact between Jacobs and Welser-Möst was more or less impossible. Despite this logistical handicap, the rhythmic precision of this performance was brilliant, especially in the scherzo, where there were many opportunities for things to go awry. It would have been necessary for Jacobs to constantly “play ahead” of the orchestra’s pulse to compensate for the acoustical lag between the console and the organ chambers at the back and sides of the stage. In this case The Cleveland Orchestra’s transparency was a plus, although at times the soloist – even at full organ – was covered by the orchestra. It was a thrilling performance of a neglected work. Jacobs came back to play an encore, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in A minor, BWV 543. Here Jacobs was able to let loose and show off the organ as a solo instrument.

Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D major is roughly contemporary with Ives’s Third, but it is sound worlds apart. Sibelius’ symphony became an instant success, which has continued for over a century. One was struck in this performance by the fullness and richness of Cleveland’s string sound, with the Severance Hall stage acting as a gigantic sounding board to enlarge the sound even more. Welser-Möst engineered huge crescendos and diminuendos, with thrilling brass chorales. The wind and brass principals had many moments to shine. The long second movement seemed to lose its musical thread at times, despite beautiful moments such as the solo trumpet in dialogue with solo flute. The third and fourth movements, however, found their groove again, with late Romanticism at full tilt with fanfares and pulsing bass figurations at the end.