Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, made an unexpected debut with The Cleveland Orchestra on Thursday evening replacing an indisposed Semyon Bychkov. It was a daunting assignment for the debutante: a relatively unfamiliar duo-piano concerto by Mozart and Tchaikovsky’s mammoth Manfred Symphony, not played by The Cleveland Orchestra since 1990.

Xian Zhang © Benjamin Ealovega
Xian Zhang
© Benjamin Ealovega

Katia and Marielle Labèque were brilliant soloists in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 10 in E flat major, K.635. The Labèques are renowned for their apparently telepathic musical communication, and the seamless integration of the two-piano ensemble was ever-present in this performance. Each of the piano parts is of equal importance and are intricately interwoven, decorating the orchestral music. With one’s eyes closed it was impossible to tell which pianist was playing. In combined passages, chordal attacks were perfectly together. The second movement was striking in its simplicity of melody and complexity of pianistic ornamentation. The solo oboe obbligato was beautifully played by Frank Rosenwein. The Rondo finale developed the theme in myriad forms and featured a “dueling pianos” cadenza and a fugato conclusion. This was a memorable performance of a charming concerto, made even better by the sophistication of the Labèques’ playing.

In the intervening 27 years since the last performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, more than half of The Cleveland Orchestra members are new, thus have never performed the work here. The chronology also meant that there is no ongoing performance tradition of the work with the orchestra, as there is for more standard repertoire, giving the conductor a clean slate. This was a mixed blessing. Xian Zhang kept proceedings moving and The Cleveland Orchestra is culturally incapable of a poor performance, but this one was workmanlike – brash and loud – rarely heroic or poetic. 

The four-movement Manfred Symphony is based on a drama by Lord Byron, which the poet deemed impossible to stage, intended more for a recitation. The Russian composer Mily Balakirev elaborated on an initial sketch by journalist and philosopher Vladimir Stassov to provide the programmatic scenario for the symphony. The drama describes the Romantic hero Manfred, seemingly a magician appealing to various spirits to answer metaphysical questions, wandering the Europe, and the Alps, specifically, in search of answers. In the end, he survives and orgy of evil spirits only to die.

Tchaikovsky’s music is as overblown as the scenario upon which it is based. It calls for a huge orchestra, including two harps, organ and five percussionists. Indeed, this symphony must have the longest crash cymbal part in symphonic literature. The opening is dark and sinister, in bass clarinet and bassoons, with downward swooping portamenti in the violins. Tchaikovsky develops his themes more extensively than in his symphonies, and whips the music to a frenzy before ending with timpani and bass drum rolls and staccato brass chords.

The second movement is filled with virtuosic swirling flute figurations, changing midstream to a simple melody with solo harp accompaniment, and a return to the opening music. The third movement has a pastoral mood and less angst than the previous two movements, with solo oboe and hunting horn responses, played by the brilliant Cleveland Orchestra horn section.

After the respite of the third movement, high drama returns in an Allegro depicting an infernal orgy of spirits. The music builds to a dramatic climax with full organ chords and solemn brass chorales, before a gradual diminuendo to a quiet, lyrical ending.

Throughout the symphony Xian Zhang, a very demonstrative conductor, seemed to be working hard to make the music “exciting.” The result was bombastic, in a work that already had enough Romantic drama without pouring on more. The Cleveland Orchestra did as she asked, but it was too much.