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Cosmic Cleveland, Cosmic Conductor

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/20/2024 -  & January 11, 12, 13, 2024 (Cleveland)
Ernst Krenek: Kleine Symphonie, Opus 58
Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony No. 10 in F Sharp Major
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 3, Sz. 85 (arr. Stanley Konopka) – Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Sz. 73

Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor, Music Director)

F. Welser‑Möst (© Julia Wesely)

My apparent aimless meandering through the styles was explained handsomely by some of my critics as unscrupulous opportunism.
Ernst Krenek

I prophecy that spiritual loneliness is to be my destiny.
Béla Bartók

A possible platitude for last night’s Cleveland Orchestra would be that, coming in from the Arctic cold, Franz Welser‑Möst offered a warm welcome. That, though, is nonsense. This concert wasn’t warm. It was blazing with cosmic light. While one work glowed with Dante‑esque heaven and purgatory, the other three opened and closed with the Big Bang.

And while those works were representative of the Weimar Republic (and Mahler only a decade behind), the styles, emotions, feelings were each unique.

On a personal note, the real warmth came when Franz Welser‑Möst came on the stage. He had been ill, had been absent from Cleveland for several months, but his entrance in New York showed him vital, alert, one of the most stunning baton-holders in music today.

And, as always, an adventurer. The later dodecaphonic music of Ernst Krenek is rarely played today. But as a prime innovator of Classical Jazz–mainly in his early opera–Krenek is a paradigm of puzzles and fun. One need only look at the orchestration of his Little Symphony. No violas or cellos, a couple of mandolins, banjos, a guitar, a contrabassoon.

This at times sounded like Milhaud (especially the jazzy Creation of the World) but Krenek last night went his own way. Mozart fanfares, a slurpy violin tune (resembling a parody of a Mahler parody), plenty of bass‑drum/cymbal syncopation. All of it with a seeming well-disguised tone row. I had heard that the original had just a few violins, not the whole Cleveland consort. That would have given a more jivey setting. Here, though, the Cleveland Orchestra was at their pointillistic best, Maestro Welser‑Möst signaling every surprising percussion and brassy surprise.

Nothing could have been a greater contrast–an unnerving contrast–than the opening Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony. The Krenek gave a visceral lift for Mr. Welser‑Möst, but Mahler is his caviar, his heart, his spirituality.

Even more pointedly, Mr. Welser‑Möst has been with the Cleveland Orchestra close to a quarter century. He had taken this superbly accurate group of players (remnants of Georg Szell) and given them a Central European romantic aura when necessary.

That was indeed essential with 10th Symphony. One could surmise that all of Mahler’s symphonies were spiritual discourses between life and death. But in this work, Mahler probably was aware of his own coming demise. He was no Tchaikovsky, he didn’t sob over his fate, but transcended his fate. And this was his triumph.

Conductor Welser‑Möst needed no idiosyncratic excesses. The work, starting with a heavenly viola melody, continued with relentless power to the grand orchestral chords. Whether one followed the musical logic or not, Mr. Welser‑Möst made certain that every measure was essential, every path was the right one.

The second half was devoted to Béla Bartók. Including a New York premiere of the 3rd String Quartet arranged for string orchestra. This was more than a transcription. Cleveland’s first‑seat viola player, Stanley Konopka, divided the strings into two facing orchestras. At times, the original solos were kept intact. More often, Bartók’s complex composition–one of the greatest 20th Century chamber pieces–was given extra resonance, the two sections playing individually or doubling the original four parts.

It was not the usual 3rd Quartet, but not the most pedantic purist could take exception to the aural wonders.

The final work was Bartók’s most extravagant, dazzling, shimmering, violent, furious work, both in story–typical expressionist porno-sadism from post‑war 1919 Hungary–to this music. With such tempo, such excitement, another conductor might have feared losing control. Never with Franz Welser‑Möst. It was horrifying, gruesome and unfettered delight.

CODA: Bittersweet notes. Bitter is that Franz Welser‑Möst will be leaving the Cleveland Orchestra at the end of this term. Sweet is that he has another concert today (Sunday) at 2pm, with three symphonies, by Webern and Prokofiev. Sweet for New York is that he is returning March 1‑3 with the Vienna Philharmonic. Obviously a case of March coming in like a lion!

Harry Rolnick



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