This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts were an interesting combination of the brand new (Matthias Pintscher’s idyll, in its world première), the unfamiliar-works-by-familiar-composers (Chopin and Richard Strauss), and the very familiar (Till Eulenspiegel).

Before the music began The Cleveland Orchestra Distinguished Service Award was presented to James D. (Jamie) Ireland III, a former chair of the orchestra's board of trustees, chair of the search committee who identified Franz Welser-Möst to be the orchestra's seventh music director, and the chair of the fund-raising campaign that raised over $100 million to fund the restoration of Severance Hall.

German composer Matthias Pinscher served as the Cleveland Orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2000-2002, and has made return visits since then. His idyll received its world première performance on Thursday night. It is scored for an enormous orchestra, including a battery of five percussionists. But the overall sense of the work is that of chamber music; except for a couple of climaxes, at any given time only a few instruments are playing. Beginning with mysterious rumblings in the low strings and percussion, the work is structured around a series of solo passages, beginning with alto flute, and later clarinet, oboe, violin, and piano. These solo passages alternate with orchestral commentary. In particular, the combination of three tam-tams gently brushed recurs throughout the work. There is no melody or harmonic development in a traditional sense; rather these wisps of alluring sound follow one on another. Parts of the work reminded me of some of Olivier Messiaen’s late orchestral music at its most meditative, but I am not convinced that idyll's 25-minute length was necessary to make the point. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra seemed to give an assured and precise performance. The composer was present for the performance.

Lang Lang is a pianist with millions of fans, from his many crossover performances at vast venues such as the opening of the Beijing Olympics; yet some musical purists disdain his performances of standard repertoire as too showy and mannered, while acknowledging his brilliant technique. He continues to expand his horizons beyond the Rach3/Prokofiev2 circuit of so many of today’s young steel-fingered virtuosi. He has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra twice before this weekend’s concerts, and, as before, he performed music out of the concerto mainstream, in this case concerted works by Chopin and Richard Strauss.

Frédéric Chopin’s Andante spianato & Grand Polonaise brilliante, in E flat major, Op.22 and Richard Strauss’s Burleske are two sides of the same coin. Both are showpieces for the solo piano; both are designed to delight the ear and enchant the senses without aiming for eternal musical truth. Lang Lang was an ideal interpreter for these two rarely-heard pieces. The Chopin work begins with an extended unaccompanied piano solo with a perfect Chopin melody to make one swoon. Horn fanfares and a brief orchestral introduction precede the brilliant polonaise. The action is all in the the piano part. The orchestra supports the harmony, with little to do on its own. This was a beautiful performance with fluidity of tempo and rubato. Both soloist and conductor showed firm communication with each other to represent the ebbs and flows of the music, as well as some tricky ensemble moments.

After intermission Lang Lang returned for an exciting performance of Richard Strauss’ very early Burleske, for piano and orchestra. Besides the piano solo, the star of this performance was Cleveland Orchestra principal timpanist Paul Yancich, who introduced the four-note melodic motif that forms the main theme of the work. His intonation was perfect and his phrasing of the melody at the beginning and when it returned throughout was impeccable. Lang Lang was in his element in the torrent of scales and arpeggios that form the solo piano part. This piano coloratura anticpates the florid soprano writing found in Strauss’ later operas – a pianistic Zerbinetta. The orchestra was given considerably more to do than in the Chopin piece; ensemble was tight. Even though neither the Chopin or Strauss works represent the pinnacle of either composer's work, they were a welcome change after the austerity of the Pintscher piece.

Strauss’ symphonic tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks is also an early work, composed nine years after the Burleske in 1895, the fourth in a series that started with Macbeth and continued through Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. The character Till Eulenspiegel is based on a real person who lived during the 14th century and who died of the Black Death. He was apprenticed to many trades and played practical jokes on them until the law caught up with him. Strauss chose a few of the episodes to form the program of his symphonic poem. As familiar as the music is, Franz Welser-Möst took a fresh look at it, with a performance full of humor and precision but never losing the rhapsodic nature of Strauss’s music. It made for a satisfying end to a intriguing and challenging program.