On Thursday, The Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst played their first concert in their home auditorium since March 2020. Full Covid-19 precautions were in place, requiring face masks, and either presenting a vaccination card or documentation of a very recent negative PCR test. There is also a new air-handling system, silently circulating the auditorium air more frequently than before. Although Severance Hall was not at capacity, the crowd ravenously anticipated the local band’s return.

The audience returns to Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Richard Strauss completed the first of his symphonic poems, Macbeth, in 1889, when he was 25 years old. This was The Cleveland Orchestra’s first performance. Although it is an early work, the 20-minute Macbeth (based on Shakespeare’s drama) is fully formed, with astonishing orchestral command. It is not a blow-by-blow musical representation of the play, but rather a commentary on the play’s characters and overall themes. There are moments of “horror”, but not as in a creepy film score. The themes of “kingship” and themes representing Macbeth and his ambitious, goading wife are developed and combined. Hints of military fanfares pervade the action, closing with the crowning of Malcolm. The final accelerando and sharp chords seal Macbeth’s downfall. TCO’s performance was attuned to the score's many twists and turns. Here, as well as later in the concert, the orchestral sound was burnished and rich, with the widest possible palette of dynamics and phrasing. Had I misremembered the last concert in 2020, or was this a whole new level of brilliance? I’d suggest the latter.

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

Joan Tower’s A New Day, a concerto for cello, was written for Cleveland native Alisa Weilerstein, commissioned by a consortium of four orchestras, including The Cleveland Orchestra. This second performance in Cleveland follows the premiere last July at the Colorado Music Festival. Its four movements mark the passing of a single day: Daybreak; Working Out; Mostly Alone; Into the Night. Tower made a special dedication to her 94-year-old husband, and each of the movements might be interpreted from the aspect of each new day possibly being the last, as well as the more mundane “getting through” each day. The concerto is readily accessible in its harmonic style and forms, with alluring and complex orchestrations, often piling up sonorities. The solo cello is both commenter, in several recitative-like cadenzas, and, sometimes, subsumed into the orchestral texture. The end of the final movement is especially beautiful, with its shimmering sound, the solo cello’s slow upward glissando, and a final very soft chord. Tower was present to accept the ovation accorded her, Weilerstein, Welser-Möst, and the orchestra.

Alisa Weilerstein and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major closed the program in a searing performance, simultaneously shocking in its ferocity, while emphasizing the melodic lyricism of the first and third movements. The impression throughout was massiveness of scale infused with supreme lyricism. The third movement waltz was especially beautiful in its soaring, haunting melody. The fourth movement begins slowly before moving into the predominant Allegro. The wind soloists were very fine, especially principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf. By the end, Welser-Möst had ramped up the musical tension and volume to almost deafening levels, ending a concert that should live on in memory for many reasons.