On the heels of an extended tour to Asia, The Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert home at Severance Hall saw the ensemble back in full force, presenting an evening wonderfully out of the ordinary – in both content and musicality. At the helm was Stéphane Denève – poised to assume directorship of the St Louis Symphony next season – who adeptly guided the orchestra through an uncommonly offbeat program, opening with a pair of works from the past two decades, in both cases first performances for this orchestra.

Stéphane Denève
© Uwe Ditz

Jennifer Higdon’s 1999 work blue cathedral was written as a response to the tragic death of her younger brother, Andrew Blue. It continues to rank as one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works, and it’s not hard to see why given its deeply moving appeal. Scoring for the glockenspiel, tubular bells, and celeste initiated matters, perhaps to suggest the tolling bells of a cathedral. A serene theme in the strings took over, pensive, reflective, and resolutely tonal, leading to solo passages in the flute and clarinet. There’s a significance to that instrumentation as Higdon herself plays the flute and her brother was a clarinetist; the flute generally took the lead, serving as a guiding light. In the less tranquil moments, awe-inspiring climaxes surged to solemn intensity, yet the same invocations of bells that opened had the final word in this profoundly touching tribute.

Another contemporary work that has established a place in the repertoire is James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto no. 3: The Mysteries of Light (composed 2007-08), presented with its champion Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. Before beginning, conductor and soloist gave a mini-lecture on the concerto, demonstrating principal themes on the keyboard and providing a helpful roadmap to an unfamiliar piece. Its intriguing subtitle alludes to the Roman Catholic rosary, which in turn inspired a long tradition of music – perhaps most notably the Rosary Sonatas for violin of Heinrich Biber, which local audiences had the chance to experience in an Apollo’s Fire performance earlier this season. The present work refers specifically to the Luminous Mysteries, introduced as recently as 2002 by Pope John Paul II.

The opening “Baptisma Iesu Christi” presented a cantus firmus of brightly colored harmonies à la Messiaen. Thibaudet clearly believes in the work, giving it total command and conviction, and playing with the manic intensity of religious fervor. “Miraculum in Cana” was marked by celebratory brass, a dance that stylistically evidenced the composer’s Scottish origins, and a particularly striking low brass chorale. The central section (of five) was a more peaceful affair, with a plaintive melody in the piano, deftly decorated by figures in the upper register (or “raindrops” as Denève so poetically called them in his introduction). A percussion-heavy climax dominated the following section, with imposing brass and rapid strings adding to the dense tapestry. Defying expectation, the music suddenly paused, suspended, with the piano resurfacing in spiritual introspection. The final, toccata-like section, “Institutio Eucharistiae”, involved a cadenza with orchestra that led to a bright and brilliant close. A work which made a strong impression, and one I am keen to give a second listen.

While the first half straddled the turn of the 21st century, the latter half spanned the turn of the 20th, beginning with Debussy’s epochal Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Principal flute Joshua Smith shrouded the opening flute solo in mystery, flowing with liquid ease. Fine contributions from the woodwind department were also made by oboist Frank Rosenwein and clarinetist Daniel McKelway. While the orchestra was comparatively slimmer than in the rest of the program, the textures elicited were nonetheless lush. A central section was more animated, though perhaps a notch too present, while the conclusion – grounded by the harps – faded back into the haze of unknowing.

Much has been written about Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, though my favorite assessment is surely Henry Miller’s likening of the work to “a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows”. The notion of ecstasy provided a loose thematic link to the MacMillan concerto, and thus this program formed something of pendant to the orchestra’s exploration last season of works expressing ecstasy in musical terms. A languid melancholy opened, with a more mercurial theme shifting on pace with the composer’s unbridled imagination. The 20-plus minutes were of continuous ebb and flow which Denève managed to guide with clear direction and purpose. Matters crested to suitably ecstatic climaxes at various intervals, though none more so than the closing bars, saturated by organ and bells – resounding, transcendent.