It is not often that both guest conductor and soloist make simultaneous debuts with The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. But such was the case this weekend, with French conductor Alain Altinoglu and Latvian violinist Baiba Skride in an often thrilling concert rich in color and virtuosity.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Modest Mussorgsky began the composition of his opera Khovanshchina in 1872, and it was left unfinished at his death in 1881. As in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina is a complex political drama based on actual events for which Mussorgsky wrote his own libretto. After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov completed and orchestrated the opera. Although the opera is performed occasionally, it is best known for its prelude, “Dawn on the Moscow River”, here played in Shostakovich's orchestration. The prelude is remarkably peaceful for an opera so full of religious and political conflict. Altinoglu led a performance that detailed the colors in Shostakovich’s orchestration: clarinet, oboe and English horn solos, and a soaring violin melody. Chiming bells open the new day, with shimmering strings and celesta, before it all fades away. It was beautifully evocative.

Shostakovich’s 1967 Violin Concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor is a work more to be admired than loved. It was written to celebrate violinist David Oistrakh’s 60th birthday. Although Shostakovich’s place in the Soviet political regime was relatively secure by then, the austerity of this concerto and other late works are perhaps reflections of the composer’s failing health. It is a triumph of motivic development; short phrases are repeated, combined, developed. Melodies tend to be short-lived and are rarely expansive. The solo violin is often incorporated into the overall orchestral texture, although there are several extended cadenzas that give the soloist a few moments in the spotlight. Especially in the second movement, the soloist plays in the lowest register of the violin, but with a feeling of desolation rather than warmth. Skride threw herself fearlessly into a work which chugs along, often in a seeming bureaucratic frenzy. Altinoglu kept the machine running efficiently. Not until the third movement does all of the activity pay off, with a rondo of perpetual motion, showing Skride’s virtuosity to fuller extent and demonstrating the precision of The Cleveland Orchestra. It was an excellent performance of a concerto that lacks immediate appeal.

After Soviet-era gray, the second half was filled with French orchestral color. The best performance of the evening was Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles, a work commissioned by George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra for their 40th anniversary in 1957–58. Dutilleux finished the work six years late, so Szell and the Clevelanders didn't give the première until 1965. It is an orchestral showpiece of five interconnected movements that share transformations of motivic and textural materials. It is not necessary to understand the underlying technique employed by Dutilleux; striking orchestral colors and virtuosic instrumental passages are sufficient to capture the ear and the imagination. The first section is based on the interval of a tritone (a dissonant interval called in medieval times “the devil in music”), with brilliant overlapping woodwind passages and percussion interjections. The second section uses only strings, softly, with increasingly short phrases to a climax. The third segment is jazzy, with lush brass chorales, again based on the tritone interval. The percussion is featured prominently in the fourth segment; and the material from the first section returns in the fifth section, expanded and much more colorful, with complex texture and sometimes shrieking dissonance. Métaboles is an arresting work, given a thrilling performance. The colors and transformations outshone the musical dissonances.

A Ravel favorite, the Daphnis et Chloé Suite no. 2, filled the remainder of the program, in a sensuous, colorful performance. It is performed quite frequently at Severance Hall; each time there is something new to be heard in Ravel’s remarkable orchestrations. Chief among this performance’s virtues was principal flute Joshua Smith’s ravishing performance of the extended flute solo. He employed a huge range of timbre, from slender and almost piercing to full and lush. This performance may not have had the icy perfection of ensemble of one led by Pierre Boulez. Altinoglu used a rather broader brush, which was effective in its own way. The end of the suite was powerfully glittering.