Cleveland’s Severance Hall was at capacity for Friday evening’s Thanksgiving weekend concert by The Cleveland Orchestra, guest conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, Music Director of the Nashville Symphony. Two familiar audience favorites surrounded the local première of the late Stephen Paulus’s 2003 Grand Concerto for solo organ and orchestra, with Paul Jacobs as the soloist.

Giancarlo Guerrero © Tony Matula
Giancarlo Guerrero
© Tony Matula

Organ concertos are rare in symphonic concerts, and when they happen they tend to be from a small handful of works (Poulenc, Copland and the inevitable Saint-Saëns Third Symphony, although it doesn’t really qualify as a concerto.) So the opportunity to hear a recent work in live performance on Severance Hall‘s meticulously restored 1930 94-rank E.M. Skinner organ is of great interest. American composer Stephen Paulus, who died at age of 65 in 2014, wrote several concert works for organ and orchestra, as well as many works for chorus, and several operas. His music is conservatively tonal, but with some spicy harmonies and shining lyricism.

Despite a technically brilliant performance and some striking moments, the Grand Concerto doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. The work is in three movements, with a slow introduction leading to an Allegro first movement, a lyrical slow movement, and a toccata-like third movement. Paulus "checked all the boxes" for a textbook concerto, with complex rhythmic interplay between the organ and orchestra, and imaginative use of the the organ’s many, varied registers. Guerrero and Jacobs judged the balances carefully, no mean feat with the organ chambers many yards away from conductor and player. The third movement toccata has constantly repeated chordal figurations in the hands, with a melody in the pedal, and, late in the movement, a tricky pedal solo. At one point the full violin section soars over the orchestral/organ texture with the folk melody "The Water is Wide”. It was an opportunity for melodic development, but it was played once, and completely disappeared. Paulus knew how to write a dramatic climax, and the end of the concerto was a showstopper. Paul Jacobs’ solo encore, a transcription of the "Sinfonia" from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata no. 29 Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, was thrilling. Jacobs used the full resources of the organ in a very romantic, exciting performance.

Aaron Copland’s El Salón México is often relegated to pops concerts or student performances. The Cleveland Orchestra program booklet indicated that the last subscription concert performances were in 1974 with the composer conducting! Copland’s inspiration from Mexican dance halls was reflected in the Mexican percussion instruments, musical themes, syncopated rhythm and playing with pitches in solo passages. As someone who grew up with Leonard Bernstein’s spirited, almost raw, performances with the New York Philharmonic, Guerrero‘s performance was precise, everything dutifully in place, but lacking a feeling of spontaneity. 

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor, Op.36 was a different story. Guerrero led a performance of theatrical grandeur, with sensitive playing from all sections of the orchestra, from the opening brass fanfares to the blazing conclusion. Although Guerrero emphasized the dramatic, there were plenty of  moments of repose in which the orchestra was barely audible. Guerrero stopped conducting altogether for large portions of the Scherzo, letting the strings listen and respond on their own to the musical flow. Special mention goes to Afendi Yusuf, the orchestra’s recently appointed principal clarinet. His solo playing at several moments in the concert was ravishing, with pure tone, perfect intonation, and sensitive phrasing.