Donald Rosenberg | Guest Reviewer
The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performs under circumstances that can only be termed unreasonable. The musicians rehearse and perform up to three programs a week, which would appear to work against any semblance of high standards. They often contend with climatic conditions that play tricks on reeds, keys, embouchures and more.
And yet, as it demonstrated Thursday in the Amphitheater, the ensemble can surmount most obstacles and turn in performances of remarkable depth and excitement. The principal offender on this occasion was rain, which fell throughout the concert, sometimes with defiant force, almost as if it intended to maintain a presence in the sonic textures.
But the orchestra, guest conductor Michael Stern and cellist Amit Peled were such paragons of concentration that they never allowed the natural special effects to stand in the way of their music-making. Two of the works on the program, Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, contain hints or images of landscapes and stormy weather, so the falling water sometimes fit snugly into the artistic narratives.
The rain may have been constant here and there, but it largely served as distant interloper when the musicians were inhabiting the scores at hand. That was especially true in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107, in which Peled seized attention through artistry of heroic and expressive potency. The composer wrote the work for Mstislav Rostropovich, a titan of the cello with a commanding sense of rhetoric and sonic nuance. Peled possesses the same qualities, while bringing individual finesse and probity to the music.
The concerto could only have been imagined by Shostakovich, who wove his initials into the fabric. The opening theme is built of the notes D-S-C-H, or D-E-flat-C-B in German nomenclature, and it drives everything that follows. At once vehement, doleful and acerbic, the score reflects Shostakovich’s empathy for humanity and disdain for political forces that seek only to oppress.
Finding a satisfactory balance between soloist and orchestra can be challenging in the work, but Peled’s penetrating tonal focus and urgent phrasing guaranteed that Shostakovich’s messages came across with lucid assurance. The Israeli cellist gave powerful voice to the opening movement’s emphatic gestures, and he never tired amid the acrobatic demands. The brooding and anguished utterances in the slow movement received poetic detailing, while the folk elements burst forth with edgy intensity.
Shostakovich gives the orchestra a break in the third movement, an extended cello cadenza of exceptional emotional and technical complexity. Peled played the sweeping bowed passages and chilling pizzicato effects (some in the left hand) against a backdrop of insistent rain, which paled next to the cellist’s triumphant contribution. Stern and the orchestra returned in the finale, one of the composer’s great sardonic creations, and together, the musicians gave the score a rousing send-off.
There were moments throughout the concerto when articulations and rhythms could have been more sharply defined in the orchestra, no doubt a result of the short rehearsal schedule. But the playing mostly was nimble and alert, with especially superb input from hornist Roger Kaza.
The program originally was announced to start with Stephen Hartke’s “Muse of the Missouri,” whose world premiere Stern, music director of Kansas City Symphony, led last month with his orchestra. But Hartke’s piece gave way to the Mendelssohn overture, also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” which served as an aptly atmospheric curtain raiser. Stern shaped a wonderfully flexible and vibrant account, emphasizing both the music’s turbulence and lyricism. Mendelssohnian drama and delicacy were placed in deft perspective, and the clarinets made a seamless thing of their silken duet.
The epic and craggy character of Sibelius’ Second Symphony make it an ideal vehicle for al fresco performances, and Stern and the orchestra made sure that the music’s impact would register as they immersed themselves in this wondrous score. The audience had an opportunity to hear the opening twice after something went amiss a dozen or so bars into the first movement, but what followed was another example of the Chautauqua orchestra’s ability to go well beyond the surface and provide a performance of real distinction.
Stern revealed his love of Sibelius in a reading that was coherent and propulsive while also savoring details that make the work so special. The score’s grandeur emerged strikingly in the glowing brass orations, and Sibelius’ way of stopping suddenly to gaze at a vista was nowhere more apparent than in Jan Eberle’s tender oboe solos in the third movement. The strings were warm and agile, the winds fresh, the timpani crisp. Against such artistry, the rain didn’t stand a chance.
Donald Rosenberg has been writing about music for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland since 1992. He is the author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None and president of the Music Critics Association of North America.