Christoph von Dohnányi, Music Director Laureate of The Cleveland Orchestra, returned for a welcome visit this weekend to lead a set of concerts including two standards, plus the world première of an intriguing new concerto for two violas. Even by The Cleveland Orchestra’s usual high standards, the performance was exceptionally fine. Dohnányi’s tenure in Cleveland ended in 2002, and there has been considerable turnover in the orchestra’s membership since then, but he remains a conductor who consistently gets the best from them.

Christoph von Dohnányi © Fotostudio Heinrich
Christoph von Dohnányi
© Fotostudio Heinrich

Bedřich Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride opened the program with its joyful melodies and buzzing underpinnings. Dohnányi kept the dynamic low for much of the overture, so that when there was a crescendo to a musical climax, there was some place to go. The passage work was precise across the orchestra. It was notable just how little “conducting” Dohnányi did; no big antics on the podium. Sometimes he even stopped directing completely. He trusted the orchestra to listen to what they were doing.

There was a purpose to opening with Smetana. The overture set up the concert’s next work, the Concerto for Two Violas on Themes from Smetana’s “From My Life” String Quartet, a brand new concerto by American composer Richard Sortomme. It was commissioned by The Cleveland Orchestra to recognize the upcoming retirement of Robert Vernon, the orchestra’s principal viola since 1976, at the end of the 2015/16 season. The second soloist was Lynne Ramsey, Vernon’s longtime stand partner.

Sortomme’s concerto is no mere pastiche or parody of the famous string quartet. It is a new work that does use some of the major themes, but they are completely transformed by harmony, orchestration, timbre and range. Smetana’s themes are often less recognizable than, say, the quotations from Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia. The harmonic fabric was tonal, with imaginative orchestration. The work, about 20 minutes in duration, was split into two movements that encompassed themes from the first two movements of the Smetana quartet in the first, and the last two Smetana movements in the second. The composer himself wrote a detailed and useful roadmap of the concerto’s structure that was printed in the program book. Christoph von Dohnányi led the work with crystalline precision, keeping the orchestral parts generally subservient to the soloists. Occasionally the two solo parts are subsumed into the orchestral texture by design, but Sortomme, an experienced string player himself, managed the orchestrations so as to not overwhelm the mellow violas. The solo parts were not overtly virtuosic but mostly lyrical, although at times they were called upon to coordinate tricky rhythmic coordination. Vernon and Ramsey played with similar, warm sound, with the comfort of musicians long familiar with each other’s style.

Before the performance of the concerto I wondered if it would hold up musically if one was not familiar with the string quartet that forms its inspiration. The answer is a definitive yes. Concertos for two violas are as rare as proverbial hens’ teeth, and Sortomme’s new work is an attractive addition to the repertoire, well-served by its first performance.

Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major “The Great” was never performed complete during Schubert’s lifetime, although portions may have been played. The score was discovered after Schubert’s death and resurrected in 1839 by Felix Mendelssohn and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The symphony is a Dohnányi/Cleveland calling card. They performed it often and recorded it during his music directorship. In this concert, Dohnányi led a refined, patrician performance. From the purity of the opening horn solo, it was noble, with clarity of texture. Dohnányi had a “less is more” attitude: the dynamic level was mostly subdued except for major climaxes. The tempos were flexible but not extreme. The second movement’s phrasing was subtle, with special attention throughout to attacks and releases. The third movement scherzo danced along brightly, with a dignified waltz as the trio. For all of Schubert’s melodic genius, however, the wholesale repeat of the opening scherzo music extended the movement longer than the material warranted. The perpetual motion of the string parts in the fourth movement was played with great precision, with refined overall musicality.

Although he showed no sign of frailty while conducting, at the end of the concert, Dohnányi, now 86, grasped the rail of the podium for support, betraying the inevitability of age. His musical legacy continues to enrich Cleveland’s musical scene.