Saturday evening’s program by The Cleveland Orchestra with Asher Fisch as Guest Conductor at the Blossom Music Festival was no-frills music making of a high order. There were no innovative interpretations of the three works on the program, but solid and commanding performances of symphonic works by Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, and TCO’s associate concertmaster Jung-Min Amy Lee gave an enchanting performance of Samuel Barber’s lushly romantic Violin Concerto.

Asher Fisch and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

Franz Liszt’s Mazeppa, composed between 1847 and 1851, was the sixth in Liszt’s series of symphonic poems. Although others had composed music of a picturesque nature, Liszt seems to have been the first composer to apply the label symphonic poem. It is based on a poem by Victor Hugo about a man (Mazeppa) who fell in love with his noble employer’s wife. He was tied naked to a horse and sent away. The horse ran until it collapsed and died of exhaustion. Mazeppa later founded an army and went on to triumph.

Liszt’s work begins with a sharp, accented chord simulating the crack of a whip, setting off a seemingly unending passage of unison strings with fierce interjections and, later, a big tune by the brass. The death of the horse is represented by soft strokes on the timpani. After an ominous transition, a spritely dance turns into a brilliant and triumphant march illustrating Mazeppa’s military success. Fisch appropriately emphasized the dramatic aspects of the music but always pressed ahead. Liszt’s music is made of contrasts, from barely audible to resounding heroism. The Cleveland Orchestra met the spectacular technical challenges, yet the sound never seemed overwrought. Mazeppa augured well for the rest of the concert.

Jung-Min Amy Lee and Asher Fisch with The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

Lee joined The Cleveland Orchestra as associated concertmaster in 2008 and has appeared as soloist with the orchestra on several previous occasions. Her Blossom performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto was, in a word, exquisite. Her violin tone was full but not bloated, and it blended well with the rest of the orchestra – not surprisingly, since she plays with them regularly. She sensitively captured Barber’s outpourings of lyrical romanticism. The orchestral textures in the first movement were crystal clear, with the orchestral piano part here somewhat more prominent than in many performances, adding punctuation to the texture.

The second movement opens with a significant orchestral introduction featuring a dolorous yet ecstatic oboe solo, played beguilingly by principal Frank Rosenwein – perhaps a musical love note to the soloist, to whom he is married. Indeed, the whole orchestra seemed to be at their best throughout in supporting one of their own. Fisch was a sensitive accompanist, managing the soloist-orchestra blend with give and take in phrasing.

The finale, with its virtuosic stream of scales and arpeggios for the soloist supporting the thematic material in the orchestra, was a tour de force for all the performers and was greeted with an unusually long and boisterous ovation at the end.

To follow up their success this evening, The Cleveland Orchestra closed the program with a noble performance of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor. The orchestra has recorded the symphony six times – with every music director since George Szell, as well as Vladimir Ashkenazy – and performed it live countless dozens of times; yet there was not a hint of routine in this performance. From the slow tread of the timpani’s pulse at the beginning of the first movement to the chorale-like apotheosis at symphony’s end, conductor and orchestra put their combined decades of experience to good use. The tempos seemed logical, not rushed nor dragging. The relatively brief third movement was purely graceful. In the last movement, the opening episodes prepared the listener for the famous major-key main theme. Although there were moments of repose, Fisch gradually revved up this great orchestral machine to a brilliant conclusion, confirming my thoughts throughout that this concert will be one of my lasting musical memories of summer 2019.