The rising young Swiss-French conductor Lorenzo Viotti made a strong impression in his Cleveland Orchestra debut in concerts over the American Thanksgiving weekend. Iconic pianist Yuja Wang was the soloist in a Rachmaninov concerto, but not in one of the usual suspects.

Yuja Wang
© Julia Wesely

Viotti opened the concert with a wry, colorful reading of Sergei Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges. Each of the six movements had its own character, from the bombast of the first “Ridiculous People” opening, to the gorgeous extended viola solo in “The Prince and the Princess”, to the final thunderous, virtuosic “The Escape”. The “March”, the most well-known movement, had the precision of a field dress brigade.

Wang has appeared several times with The Cleveland Orchestra since her 2011 debut, and with each succeeding performance she has demonstrated that her musical artistry has matured to more closely match her unassailable technical gifts.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor is the “lesser stepchild” of the more often performed second and third concertos. The Fourth Concerto was a critical failure after its 1927 Philadelphia Orchestra debut with the composer as soloist, and again after its 1941 revision. Nonetheless, this concerto remains, in its own way, a forward-thinking piece, showing the composer expanding in new directions. There are few big tunes: the melodic themes are fragmented and most often appear in the orchestra. There are still fistfuls of notes and brilliant, daunting passages, but they are often subsumed as filigree in the orchestral texture. The thunder and virtuosity of the third movement’s piano solos were its most prized characteristics. But the highlight of this performance was the central slow movement, with its descending three-note theme harmonized as a chorale first in the piano part, alternating and developing the material with the orchestra. Wang’s playing was self-effacing, almost introverted, gorgeously and delicately voiced.

Wang returned for a brief, serene encore, the “Melodie” from Gluck’s opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, arranged by Sgambati.

The first – and most recent – time that Francis Poulenc’s Sinfonietta was played by The Cleveland Orchestra was in 1949, with George Szell conducting the piece’s United States premiere. 60 years is a long time to wait, but Viotti led a vivid account of Poulenc’s sparkling, characterful four-movement suite. It is vintage Poulenc at his best, using his whole bag of melodic and harmonic tricks: sudden contrasts between frenetic activity and lyricism in the first movement. A mercurial Scherzo constantly changed moods. The slow movement Andante cantabile featured a lyrical clarinet solo by principal Afendi Yusef. The finale was full of life and humor, with a few dreamy phrases thrown in along the way. The Sinfonietta is delightful; we can hope for its return in fewer than 60 years.

Maurice Ravel’s La Valse is a Cleveland Orchestra favorite. Viotti conducted it without score and it proved to be some of his best work on the concert. Phrases were gracefully molded, building gradually to the work’s disquieting climax. From his work in Cleveland, Viotti’s career is one to watch.