This weekend’s concert by The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall carried a premonition of disappointment. The announced conductor, Jaap van Zweden, music director of the New York Philharmonic, canceled his appearance in order to return to the Netherlands for a family medical matter. He was replaced on short notice by the young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, currently the principal guest conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He had previously conducted The Cleveland Orchestra for a one-off concert at the Blossom Music Festival in the summer 2019, but this was his Severance Hall debut.

Augustin Hadelich, Klaus Mäkelä and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Suziao Yang

But any fears of disappointment were misplaced: indeed, the concert was a triumph for both Mäkelä and The Cleveland Orchestra, especially in their incandescent performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major in the second half of the program.

The concert opened with Olivier Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées, written in 1930 when the composer was 21 and just developing his signature harmonic style. It is in three sections: first, a slow, sinuous melody in the strings, supported by the unusual texture of two horns and two flutes; second, a stormy, frantic Allegro, with a trumpet solo fanfare and disjunct rhythms. Suddenly there is a moment of silence, followed by a long, infinitely slow pianissimo closing section with a serene melody in the first violins section, supported by parts of the second violins and viola sections. The work ends on a breathtakingly long, almost inaudible note. Under Mäkelä’s direction, the orchestra’s sound shimmered.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor finds the composer in a relatively amiable mood. Augustin Hadelich and Mäkelä took a somewhat lighthearted viewpoint of the work, with restrained, almost chamber-like textures from both soloist and orchestra. The musical forms are classical: a sonata form for the first movement, a rondo for the third, with a lyrical (mostly) slow movement between them. Hadelich’s sound was refined and fine-grained. In many passages of the concerto, his playing was subsumed in the texture of the orchestra. The slow movement was especially fine in its elegant sustained melody in the solo, contrasting with a staccato accompaniment. The solo violin part in the raucous waltz of the third movement never stops. Although much of it was filigree, Hadelich was fully able to make himself heard at the climaxes.

Hadelich also played an encore, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, a guitar work by Francisco Tárrega, transcribed for solo violin. It was pleasant, but didn’t add much to the evening.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 was stunning, with TCO and Mäkelä completely on the same wavelength. Mäkelä often conducted with minimal gesture, including just his left hand caressing the phrasing, encouraging the phrases to flow naturally. Throughout all four movements, it was clear that the conductor fully understood the architecture of the piece and the line of the music. He let the orchestra play like the overgrown chamber ensemble that they really are; the members of the orchestra listened to one another and responded accordingly. The sound was heroic when appropriate, especially in the first and last movements. At the end of the symphony it seemed that conductor and ensemble were one with each other, so intense was their music-making. After the last chord, it was clear that the rest of the audience had caught the same intensity that I had; everyone was simultaneously on their feet for an unusually long and loud ovation. Perhaps more significantly, the members of The Cleveland Orchestra themselves gave Mäkelä the ultimate, and rare, accolade of putting down their instruments to applaud the young visiting conductor. Mäkelä in tandem with The Cleveland Orchestra were simply sensational.