Schubert and Prokofiev are two composers one doesn’t readily associate, yet The Cleveland Orchestra's music director Franz Welser-Möst is keen to explore the two in an initiative begun last season, both individually and in parallel as in this weekend’s season opener. Welser-Möst himself was on hand for a pre-concert interview, and when probed about similarities between the two composers, he noted their classical approach to the symphony along with their great feeling for melody. The associated programs traverse both the well-known and the overlooked – this weekend’s concerts paired Schubert’s Symphony no. 3 in D major with the complete Act 1 of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

The Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A slow and stately introduction à la Haydn began the Schubert, but not without a certain weight hinting at what was to come from the younger composer’s pen. The opening movement’s main theme was crisply delivered with commendable playing from the principal winds, particularly oboist Frank Rosenwein. While classically proportioned, Welser-Möst emphasized the contrasts and heightened drama, indicating unmistakably that the seeds of Romanticism were planted. The Allegretto was alluring in its delicate interplay, while the Menuetto was driving in its brassy vigor, countered by a more relaxed trio – again, with commendable contributions from the woodwind department. The dance-inflected finale closed the symphony in a ball of energy.

So often when Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet appears on concert programs, it takes the form of a suite (the composer himself prepared three), but refreshingly, Welser-Möst opted for the first act unabridged, an hour-long swath of music for which the modest orchestra of the Schubert swelled to the brim of the stage. Hearing the uncut version was often revelatory – excerpts familiar from the suites took on a totally different life in the context of the complete work and one could easily follow the drama even in the absence of staging. The “Introduction” was of biting lyricism, intensely melodic but sparkling with piquant dissonances to introduce several of the act’s principal themes. “Romeo” depicted the eponymous as at once strutting and innocent through the solo bassoon, while in “The Street Awakens” concertmaster Peter Otto gave a folksy fiddle solo. Adding to the prismatic orchestral color was the tenor saxophone, memorably introduced in the “Morning Dance.”

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The ensuing fight was depicted with blazing strings and an almost shocking tension, with “The Prince’s Command” a call to action of enormous power. On the lighter end was the sprightly “Juliet as a Young Girl,” aided by Afendi Yusuf’s luscious clarinet. “Arrival of the Guests” proceeded as a big-boned minuet, inclusive of a clarion cornet passage from Michael Sachs. The emblematic “Dance of the Knights” was of great intensity, the strings sharply contoured and crisply articulated, with the silken flute of Joshua Smith offering contrast in the interludes. “Mercutio” was depicted by way of a colorful and energetic character portrait, and the “Madrigal” provided a lyrical respite. It was the final three selections, however, that served as the act’s emotional crux. Poignant keyboard work by Joela Jones on both organ and piano made the “Balcony Scene” all the more affecting, surging to the sublime conclusion of the “Love Dance.”

After this performance, I hardly have a desire to hear merely the suites again – fingers crossed that the remainder of the complete ballet appears on a future Cleveland Orchestra program. In a rare instance of an encore during a subscription program, the evening continued with Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, which Welser-Möst introduced as “an extra to express our joy to be back” – and a joyous affair it was.