Igor Stravinsky seemed to have come full circle in November 1958, when a Paris audience reacted badly to his dodecaphonic religious cantata Threni: Lamentations of Jeremiah. While not quite the near-riot caused by The Rite of Spring 45 years earlier, the jeering left Stravinsky feeling humiliated. “The unhappiest concert of my life,” he wrote in his diary the next day, blaming conductor Pierre Boulez for a disastrous performance.

Franz Welser-Möst and Seraphic Fire © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst and Seraphic Fire
© Roger Mastroianni

So it was perhaps not surprising that Music Director Franz Welser-Möst took the unusual step of explaining Threni to the audience before raising his baton for the Cleveland Orchestra's first-ever performance of the piece. After a quick overview of its Biblical roots, Venice connections and structural relationships to Greek theater, Renaissance music and twelve-tone technique, Welser-Möst noted that Threni is hardly ever performed, and said encouragingly, “I hope you find something in this piece you can really relate to.”

As it turned out, the cautionary prelude was instructive but unnecessary. The performance spoke for itself, a riveting account of a daunting work that calls for vocal gymnastics by six soloists, whispers and chattering from a large mixed chorus and atonal outbursts played by sections of a full orchestra. With strong showings from each group of performers, knit together beautifully by Welser-Möst, it offered a vivid portrait of the composer's genius and the breathtaking possibilities of modern music.

Stravinsky chose verses from the first three chapters of The Book of Lamentations for his text, and set them to musical lines traded or echoed by the soloists and chorus. The orchestra interjects and punctuates the vocals, with small groups or solo instruments providing occasional accompaniment for the singers. The latter provided some of the most atmospheric moments of the evening, especially in various vocal combinations with flugelhorn and bass clarinet.

In general, the orchestra showed a remarkable facility for twelve-tone music, a genre it seldom assays and typically without much success. In this case, the playing was smart and superbly executed, with a hint of tension underneath that captured the spirit and mood of the piece. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was also in rare form, showing an inventive streak and limber technique, with fine shading in the colors and just the right spark of electricity. 

The soloists were members of Seraphic Fire, a South Florida-based vocal ensemble with a repertoire that ranges from early music to newly commissioned contemporary works. The difficult phrasing, awkward pauses and octave leaps were handled with impressive aplomb by Margot Rood, Margaret Lias, Brian Giebler, Steven Soph, James Bass and Charles Wesley Evans.

If there was a weakness, it was in the arc of the piece – or more accurately, lack thereof. Rather than organically developing, it unfolded as a series of statements that simply stopped after 35 minutes. To be fair, the internal structure of Threni is quite complex, not easily discerned or fully appreciated on first listening. But the same problem plagued the first half of the concert, a tasty selection of other lesser-played Stravinsky works that fell flat at times.

© Roger Mastroianni
© Roger Mastroianni

The opening Fireworks, an early work composed as a wedding gift for Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter, brimmed with bright colors and flashy horns. Still, some detail was lost in the brisk pace, which made it seem more like a sprint than a celebration.

Apollon musagète showcased the strings, and offered a reminder why the Cleveland Orchestra string sections rank among the finest in the US. Elegant, luminous and played with exquisite finesse, they have an Old World sound imbued with New World energy. Unfortunately, there was not much character in Welser-Möst's interpretation, which bounced along pleasantly – thanks to some conducting from the hips – but never developed the drama or flair of a ballet score. Instead the music glided along in a cheerful monotone that, again, just stopped instead of building to a climax.

Credit to Welser-Möst for a smart pairing, as the strings left the stage and the brass and woodwinds came on for Symphonies of the Wind Instruments. Their sound was rich and colorful, particularly in pairings of the principal oboe and flute players. But the music lacked an inner pulse, leaving some skillful performances by individual players as the highlight of the piece.

Flaws aside, an all-Stravinsky evening offers a thrilling excursion through 20th-century music – though not always a popular one, as a conspicuous number of empty seats suggested. It was bold programming with a brilliant finale, one of those rare moments when a collaboration comes together to produce truly inspirational music.