The Cleveland Orchestra’s pre-recorded “In Focus” concerts continued with a brilliant performance led by Franz Welser-Möst of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 ballet Carmen Suite. Shchedrin wrote the ballet as a star vehicle for his wife Maya Plisetskaya, prima ballerina of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

On first hearing, one could wonder what kinds of late 1960s mind-altering drugs the composer might have been on. Shchedrin’s use of Bizet’s Carmen is, to say the least, unusual, for an orchestra of strings, timpani, and four percussion players on a massive battery of instruments. Shchedrin’s ballet pays only slight attention to the opera, freely rearranging the order of musical scenes, sometimes even omitting the melody (e.g., the Toreador song) and leaving only the harmonic underpinnings. In the middle of the suite Shchedrin even inserts an arrangement of the manic “Farandole” from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne. Despite its unique eccentricity, the composer strips the opera to its essentials, even leaving out the character Micaëla to focus on the love triangle of Don José, Carmen, and Escamillo. In many places, Shchedrin’s score forces the listener to pay attention to details of the characters’ inner thoughts, as reflected in his music.

The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst, a brilliant and committed opera conductor, led The Cleveland Orchestra in a fantastic performance, both in the aspect of fantasy and in musical excellence. He never condescended to the seemingly bizarre twists and turns of the score, but led it as a fully formed entity in itself. The string sections displayed a vast array of textures, from the most delicate opening and closing passages of the suite, to the dense, menacing hues of the fortune telling scene. The mysterious “Toreador and Carmen” was played with transparent simplicity, a melody line over a pizzicato accompaniment. The opera’s prelude is moved to the finale, with dueling marimba players chattering away on the melody, while the strings’ interjections became increasingly sinister.

This work showcased The Cleveland Orchestra’s peerless percussion players. Marc Damoulaikis and Thomas Sherwood played the tuned percussion (chimes, marimba, vibraphone) and had the most video screen time. The other section members Donald Miller and Tom Freer, and timpani principal Paul Yancich also labored mightily to great, often subtle, success. Such was the integration with the strings that passages were often well in progress before the realization that the percussion was supporting the music. Welser-Möst’s attention to the details of Shchedrin’s creation brought a triumph for orchestra.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Before and after the musical sections of the program there were several illuminating segments of a recent video interview with Shchedrin (in Russian, with English subtitles) about the difficulties of the ballet's creation. Battles with Soviet authorities threatened to scuttle performances. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich bravely took on the bureaucrats in getting the work produced for the Bolshoi stage. What shone through most in this interview was the composer’s love for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya. “We were married for 57 good years.” His wife’s independence in defying the Soviets reflected “Carmen’s struggle against authority’s desire.”


This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream

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