The Cleveland Orchestra belatedly celebrated Benjamin Britten's centenary this weekend with his Spring Symphony and the American premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Locke’s Theatre, first performed at Snape Maltings on 22 November 2013, Britten’s 100th birthday. This high profile program also included Rachmaninov’s ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the esteemed Rudolf Buchbinder as the soloist. Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland’s Music Director, conducted the first performance of the series on Thursday evening, but was taken ill on Saturday, thrusting the orchestra’s new assistant conductor Brett Mitchell into the high wire assignment on short notice. Mitchell had little, if any, actual rehearsal time with the orchestra, chorus and soloists. Under these difficult circumstances, Mitchell didn’t hit a home run, but he made an heroic effort in a long, complicated program.

 The concert opened with “Lemminkäinen’s Return,” the last of Jean Sibelius’s Four Legends, op.22. Although it was a rousing opener, from its ominous opening chords in a minor key, to the closing brass fanfares in brilliant E major. However, playing just this movement robbed it of its overall context in the suite. Given the scope of the remaining program, it seemed unnecessary.

Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder last appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1998, and this Rachmaninov Rhapsody made one regret his long absence. Playing with uncommon taste and elegance, he is not showy; he sits at the front edge of the piano stool, with almost no body motion and no flailing limbs. He remained in total control, capable of the most intimate soft passages, to the thunderous chords and passage-work required in this virtuoso showpiece. Brett Mitchell and the Cleveland Orchestra were sympathetic accompanists; many incidental solos and other passages were refreshingly detailed without mannerism. One moment was especially memorable. Towards the end of the famous piano solo 18th variation, rather than making a big crescendo before the orchestra enters in what is usually a Technicolor sweep of Romantic grandeur, Buchbinder subtlely held the dynamic at barely more than piano. When the orchestra entered, it maintained the quiet dynamic, thus giving it somewhere to go later when a crescendo is called for. This outstanding performance was rewarded by an ovation from the audience.

British composer Ryan Wigglesworth wrote Locke’s Theatre as a tribute to the theatrical incidental music composed by 17th century composer Matthew Locke. Locke’s Theatre is in three short movements totalling about ten minutes. “The First Music” begins softly, in unison lines, but crescendos, with hints of Baroque music around the edges, filigreed with sparkles of tuned percussion, celesta and harp. “Rustic Music” begins like a wild dance gone mad, but then slows down with chattery woodwinds over very high violins. Later we hear brass chorales and trumpet fanfares, with the aspect of the music seeming to become chaotic. Suddenly, a solo oboe is heard on a very high note, and the movement ends suddenly. “Curtain Music (with storm)” is, as the name implies, picturesque, with melancholy melodies in the bassoon and English horn. The material is developed until the brief thunderstorm arrives. The movement ends ominously with downward glissandi in the double basses. Throughout Locke’s Theatre, the orchestral resources are used skillfully. It is an arresting work worthy of many more performances.

 Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony is one of the composer’s most cheerful and optimistic works, a four-movement choral/song cycle traversing the end of winter through spring to the warm summer, using an assemblage of English texts from the best of English poetry from Robert Herrick to W.H. Auden. There was a first-rate group of soloists; British soprano Kate Royal, American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (both making their Cleveland Orchestra debuts), and Canadian tenor John Tessier. The huge orchestra is used sparingly except for major climaxes. For example, Edmund Spenser’s “The Merry Cuckoo” is set for tenor solo and three solo trumpets. George Peele’s “The Driving Boy” calls for the children’s chorus (very well prepared here and elsewhere) to whistle. The most affecting moment in the work is the nostalgic setting of Auden’s “Out on the lawn I lie in bed,” for mezzo-soprano and wordless chorus. Jamie Barton was the find of the evening, with her lush, rich voice. John Tessier has a sweet lyric tenor. Throughout this performance, many of the orchestral/vocal balances were askew, and Kate Royal was, unfortunately, covered almost every time she sang. After a tentative start, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus got into the swing of things, and the finale was thrilling, with it’s descant of “Sumer is icumen in” for children. It is regrettable that more than a few audience members made a dash for the exits even before Brett Mitchell’s final cut-off.