Owing to visa issues, conductor François-Xavier Roth was compelled to bow out of last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts, allowing instead for the local debut of Singaporean conductor Kahchun Wong. Wong currently serves as Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the Japan Philharmonic, and counts Kurt Masur amongst his closest mentors. The program presented a major entry each from Beethoven and Bartók, both watershed works in their respective centuries.

Kahchun Wong
© Angie Kremer

Christian Tetzlaff served as a formidable soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, neither piece nor performer a stranger to the Mandel Concert Hall stage. The striking timpani motif that opens focused one’s attention, omnipresent in its recurrence throughout the orchestra. For Tetzlaff, the work was essentially an extension of himself, flowing naturally and effortlessly from his fingers. I was especially struck by the clarity he achieved in the high register, riding the crest of the waves. The music shows Beethoven at his most gracious and generous, almost Schubertian in its understatement (and the description “heavenly length” would be apt here, too), though Tetzlaff certainly built to ample drama when needed. 

It seemed that Wong struggled to achieve the right balance in the orchestral accompaniment, with the brass in particular being rather too loud, and a general sense of matters still being rough around the edges. Beethoven didn’t provide a cadenza for this concerto, although he did in the later edition he retooled as a piano concerto (Op. 61a). Tetzlaff offered his violin arrangement of that cadenza, thereby more authentically capturing the composer’s voice than the many cadenzas later written by others. Most unusually, it bucked convention in putting the soloist in dialogue with the timpani, a playful spirit that would be revisited in the finale. Tetzlaff gave the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in C major as an encore, a plaintive and reflective contrast to the rambunctiousness of the preceding. 

Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta traverses enormous variety and color in its half-hour duration. Searching and discursive, the opening had clarity in both the counterpoint and the ever-shifting meters. The material steadily grew in urgency, leading to the entrance of the thundering percussion. The subsequent Allegro was of motoric energy with the piano functioning unequivocally as a percussion instrument, tinted with coloristic flourishes in the celesta. Perhaps most striking was the Adagio, the epitome of Bartók’s rarefied and idiosyncratic “night music”. The panoply of timbres was an aural treat, from the piercing gesture in the xylophone to timpani pedaling to eerily trilling strings. The kinetic, folk-driven finale closed the program in foot-tapping rhythms and a sheen of orchestral brilliance. 

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