Programming a single-composer concert can be treacherous. The musical equivalent of having three servings of triple chocolate cake, the third helping never quite seems as good as the first. Happily, any concerns about the Cleveland Orchestra’s all-Prokofiev program this week proved entirely unfounded. Although the three works were all identifiably Prokofiev, there was considerable contrast between the three works, and guest conductor Stéphane Denève was impressive in illuminating significant aspects of the composer’s career.

Stéphane Denève © Drew Farrell
Stéphane Denève
© Drew Farrell

The Love for Three Oranges was composed in 1919 on the promise of a production by the Chicago Grand Opera. The première did not take place until 1921, with the composer conducting. An orchestral suite followed soon after. The plot concerns a group of commedia dell’arte characters who intervene in a story about a King whose ill son can only be cured with laughter. The orchestral suite is full of sassy humor, clever orchestrations, and character pieces that illuminate the story. The rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of the first movement “Ridiculous People” seem like shrieking hyenas, with an ambling march. “Infernal Scenes” feature crescendos and diminuendos paired with ascending and descending scales, building to a sudden fortissimo climax. The “March” is the best known movement from the suite, with its jaunty tune. “The Prince and the Princess” featured a prominent viola solo, sensitively played by the orchestra’s newly appointed principal, Wesley Collins. The final movement, “The Escape” was a scene of swirling virtuosity. Denève made the most of the many contrasted passages in the suite, with textural detail.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes is not a show-off performer. His performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major was a model of refinement, precision and understated brilliance. Ehnes’ sound is slender, but many passages in the concerto are very lightly scored, assuring the prominence of the soloist. The concerto is largely lyrical, playing to Ehnes’ strengths, but with abundant technical difficulties along the way, which he handled with aplomb. The second movement scherzo was a perpetual motion for the solo violin, with a brief march of the most complicated sort. A return to the opening music closes the movement abruptly, almost like a musical question mark. The third movement had a flowing solo melody, with very high passages entirely of trills. The concerto ends quietly in radiant D major, a beautiful conclusion. Denève was a sympathetic accompanist throughout. At the end, he maintained the audience’s rapt silence for several long seconds before he broke the mood.

Ehnes returned for an encore, the third movement “Largo” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo Sonata no. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, gentle and elegant. As he was announcing his encore, Ehnes also gave a shout-out to the local baseball team currently playing in the World Series: “Go Indians!” With those two words, he further endeared himself to the partisan audience.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet must be considered alongside the great Stravinsky ballet scores as one of the great of achievements of 20th-century dance music. The major characters and action are fully delineated in the musical themes and their development. Denève extracted about forty minutes of music from the composer’s three suites from the ballet for this concert. In his excerpts Denève anthologized all the great tunes and scenes, including the pompous “Minuet”, the portrait of Juliet, the scene of the Montagues and Capulets at the ball, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, Friar Laurence, the death of Tybalt, Romeo’s visit to Juliet’s grave, and finally, the death of Juliet. The selections abounded in passages showing the great solo players of the orchestra. The orchestra’s brass section also deserves special mention for their blazing performance. Denève captured and molded the emotions in a performance that was always compelling. The soft luscious harmonies of the balcony scene contrasted with the sharp, pounding rhythms of Tybalt’s death. In the scene of Romeo at Juliet’s grave, Denève led music of despair, and Romeo’s emotional outpouring was palpable. By contrast, Juliet’s death scene was austere and serene, ending in a surprisingly somber C major and a long silence at the end.

This concert was the best so far in the current season, with Denève’s incisive conducting, and especially the brilliant playing by James Ehnes, making it a night to remember.