Marin Alsop’s appearance in a series of three Cleveland Orchestra concerts over the American Thanksgiving weekend featured the fine young French pianist David Fray in Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with two rarely heard American works by Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland as bookends. It was an appealing program, well executed, and received with acclaim by the audience.

David Fray
David Fray
Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, dating from 1941/42, was written on commission by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony in the shadow of World War II. It is characteristic of Barber in his most lyric vein, with just enough astringency to make the piece interesting. Sinuous melodies in the winds (flute, bass clarinet, English horn, oboe, clarinet) open the work, underpinned by low strings. The string section takes over the melodic material, overlapping and developing the tunes polyphonically. A central agitated section further develops the motifs, reaching a climax with the main theme played in elongated values. There are striking contrasts between the sections, some of which occur suddenly. Although Marin Alsop sought out the drama in the work (as she did later in Copland’s Symphony no. 3) she did not skimp on allowing the soloists’ lyricism to shine through.

Pianist David Fray might have considered payment by the note for his part in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. The pianist is required to play endless streams of arpeggios and other figurations, often mostly hidden in the orchestral texture. Although Fray is capable of thundering climaxes when the music calls for it, he is a sensitive performer, with a keen sense of poetry in the musical line and flexibility of phrasing. The passage in the first movement in which the piano trades phrases with the solo clarinet was artful. The movement’s cadenza had the appropriate fantasy, yet Fray illuminated the musical lines within. The comparatively brief second movement was a model dialogue between soloist and orchestra, leading, after a short transitional passage, directly into the third movement, with its much more independent and virtuosic solo part. Yet this was not mere spinning of notes for virtuosity’s sake; rather, each passage could be considered a part of the overall musical development. Pianist and conductor communicated well in this masterpiece of Romantic pianism.

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop has assumed the mantle of her conducting mentor, Leonard Bernstein, in explaining concert music in layperson terms to audiences. Prior to this performance of Copland’s Symphony no. 3, Alsop spoke for several minutes about the symphony and led several brief excerpts, describing Copland’s use of his famous Fanfare for the Common Man as the symphony’s main thematic material, in many guises, before its full appearance at the beginning of the fourth movement. Such a discussion of the music to be performed is virtually unheard of during a Cleveland Orchestra subscription concert, so there was a bit of cognitive dissonance when she began. But this observation should not be considered a criticism; her points were well-made, brief, and did draw out some interesting details of musical development that many listeners might otherwise overlook. The symphony has not been heard in Cleveland since a 1974 performance led by the composer himself. This is a work which needs to be heard live to have full impact in its musical and rhythmic complexity. It is Aaron Copland at his most “American”, with wide-ranging, angular melodies, open harmonies and intricately jazzy rhythms in some places, in others, solemn chorales. The piece is dramatic, which played to Alsop’s strengths.

The concert had been heavily marketed on radio as “Hear Copland’s Fanfare at Severance Hall”, so there were undoubtedly many in the audience who were anxiously awaiting the symphony’s fourth movement (and got a whole lot more Copland than they might have bargained for) – but patience was finally rewarded with the thunderous brass fanfare, written in 1942 as an independent and propagandistic work. The tune is first introduced quietly in the winds before we hear its more familiar brass version. Although hinted at throughout the previous three movements, the fanfare’s phrases are directly quoted and developed throughout the final movement, often to jittery rhythms. The climax and final passages were indeed thrilling.

There were some details that were smudged in this reading (perhaps because of a shortened rehearsal schedule due to the Thanksgiving holiday?), but overall The Cleveland Orchestra responded to the symphony’s considerable technical and musical demands. The audience responded enthusiastically, recalling Alsop for multiple bows. Perhaps this American masterpiece can be revived before another 40 years pass.

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