To break the sweltering heat of a summer day in the Midwest, John Storgårds and The Cleveland Orchestra offered a refreshing antidote: a diverse helping of three works, all infrequently heard yet appealing nonetheless. A pair of 20th-century scores occupied the first half with the Britten Violin Concerto serving as the evening’s centerpiece – and a platform for the Cleveland debut of Vilde Frang – while the latter half saw a retreat to Romanticism in Schumann’s sumptuous “Spring” Symphony.

John Storgårds © Marco Borggreve
John Storgårds
© Marco Borggreve

The program opened with a certified rarity, namely George Antheil's orchestral fanfare Over the Plains. Storgårds has established himself as something of an Antheil specialist, recording the present work as part of an all-Antheil disc with the BBC Philharmonic where he serves as principal guest conductor. Inspired by the titular plains of Texas (with its 1946 première fittingly given by the Dallas Symphony), the brassy beginning wouldn't have been out of place in the film score of a Western, and indeed the composer spent a not insignificant amount of time in Hollywood. Over the Plains showed a different side of Antheil than that of the infamously iconoclastic Ballet mécanique; its earthy Americana was more akin to Copland, although Antheil's abrasive and mechanistic signature wasn't altogether forgotten. Concertmaster Peter Otto had a lovely reminiscence of the work's primary theme during one of the more inward moments.

Britten's Violin Concerto was an ambitious choice for an outdoor summer concert; a product of the Second World War, it's a daunting work, quite striking though perhaps not always of immediate appeal. In a nod towards Beethoven's sole entry in the medium, the concerto opens on timpani alone. Frang's entry followed in due course with an astringent lyricism in the upper register of her instrument. She was an impressive force in the concerto's substantial technical demands, not the least of which were the dizzyingly complex double stops, but what made the greatest impact was her thoughtful phrasing, evidencing a naturally elegant command of Britten's unforgiving language. Moreover, it was a remarkable feat for Frang and the orchestra to maintain their unblinking concentration amidst not only the heat and humidity but also a cacophonous vocalise of the avian variety; while it would, perhaps, have been apropos in Messiaen, it was far less welcome in Britten.

The central movement was as sardonic and acerbic as Shostakovich, adorned with some quick-fingered filigree in the piccolo, setting up the extended cadenza. There, the opening timpani gesture resurfaced in the solo violin, and though technically taxing, Frang exhibited a virtuosity not of showmanship but of sheer intensity. The closing passacaglia followed attacca, a venerable form which Britten would revisit to imposing effect in Peter Grimes. Storgårds communicated a keen sense of structure in this large-scale movement, significantly longer than its two predecessors. Matters surged to a powerful climax, only to yield an unassuming ending of surprising serenity, even in spite of its ambiguous resolution.

The declamatory opening of Schumann's Symphony no. 1 in B flat major (bearing the moniker “Spring”) was lushly scored, leaving no room for doubt that we were now firmly in the 19th century. A joyous, vernal reinvigoration marked the movement proper, given with the energy of a rushing mountain spring, aided by the bubbling winds and songful strings. The slow movement proceeded carefree and untroubled, although here the orchestra sounded a bit under-rehearsed, falling short of its customary balance and clarity. Two lighter trios offered contrast to the brooding minor key of the the scherzo, and the finale returned to the exuberance of the beginning. Schumann wove in a quote from his own Kreisleriana, perhaps to highlight the symphony's elements of fantasy, and the work culminated in a gregarious close.

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