Following The Cleveland Orchestra's momentous centennial season, one final 100th birthday celebration remained in the shape of last weekend’s annual gala. Franz Welser-Möst, now in his 17th season as music director, led an appealing program of works, Viennese in origin or inspiration, with superstar pianist Lang Lang initiating matters by way of a Mozart piano concerto. Adding to the sense of occasion was an impressive rigging of video equipment, as the concert was filmed for Great Performances on PBS, slated for broadcast this coming January.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor is one of only two the composer cast in the minor; that alone makes it a standout amongst his prodigious output in the medium. It opened in searching introspection, with the orchestral introduction swelling to a gripping intensity. Lang Lang’s entry was delicate, measured, and keenly phrased. Later the movement saw him in rippling dialogue with the woodwinds and a cadenza of Beethovenian drama. The Larghetto proceeded as a gentle song without words in the relative major, and while one wondered if the pianist’s emoting was genuine or calculated for effect, the end result was nonetheless wondrously lyrical. A stately return to the minor marked the finale, with sprightly playing evidencing Lang Lang’s tremendous dexterity. Episodes of great drama and vigor were increasingly unbuttoned, leading to a conclusion of deep pathos. In spite of Lang Lang’s reputation for showmanship, this performance was the work of a serious artist – a pity then there wasn’t time for an encore.

Franz Welser-Möst directs Lang Lang and The Cleveland Orchestra at the 100th Anniversary Gala. © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra.
Franz Welser-Möst directs Lang Lang and The Cleveland Orchestra at the 100th Anniversary Gala.
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra.

Perhaps Welser-Möst’s greatest achievement in Cleveland has been his commitment to opera, with complete performances of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos later this season promising to be a highlight. One got something of a preview with the same composer’s imposing Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten, a concoction very much in the spirit of Liszt’s operatic paraphrases, capturing the essence of the entire opera in twenty or so minutes and thereby aspiring to a much greater cohesion than a straightforward suite of excerpts. The Fantasy was composed in 1946, almost three decades after the opera in question, and wove together most of the orchestral interludes along with certain additional passages. It began with a descending gesture of dark foreboding, giving way to a noble lyricism. The music erupted in searing passion and crested to majestic climaxes in a tapestry of rich color and dizzying density which Welser-Möst and the orchestra negotiated with a knife-edge precision. The stentorian trombones were in particularly strong form, while the eventual close was tranquil and serene. A welcome alternative to Strauss’ more well-worn tone poems, this was to my mind the evening’s highpoint.

Music from another Strauss followed, namely Johann II’s Wiener Blut. Lilting and graceful, it ensued as a quintessential Viennese waltz, its never-ending high spirits bringing to life a grand ballroom in imperial Vienna. Concluding the program was Ravel’s La Valse, a fitting foil to Wiener Blut in many regards, more of an anti-waltz, a musical response to the disaffection brought on by World War 1. It opened in an ominous rumble, with barely discernable shards of a shattered waltz theme eventually coalescing, but only as refracted through a wary modernity. Much like Richard Strauss, Ravel was a remarkable master of orchestration, fully apparent in the Clevelanders’ variegated reading. Principal oboe Frank Rosenwein offered a very fine solo passage, and the coda was formidable in its fiery intensity, replete with crashing cymbals and tam-tam, and finally an unrelenting five-note gesture – so out of place in the triple meter of the waltz, as if the form had come toppling down upon itself.

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