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Review: Cleveland Orchestra at the Palladium

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The Cleveland Orchestra performed at the Palladium, May 22.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra performed at the Palladium, May 22.

Carmel Palladium; May 22.

For the top major symphonies in this country, a run-out means a quick trip to another city, in this case by charter flight, the playing of a concert program (usually duplicated from their home base on the same weekend) and a return flight the same day. That's what the Cleveland Orchestra did on Sunday, providing yet another of the many top attractions in the Palladium — the Carmel Center for the Performing Arts — which so imposingly began this January.

Featuring veteran guest pianist Emanuel Ax, Cleveland conductor and music director Franz Welser-Most offered a program of works by John Adams, Haydn, Stravinsky and Beethoven. Ax played in two of these: the Haydn Piano Concerto in D (1784) and Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929).

Adams' Guide to Strange Places (2001) began the afternoon, a half hour of huge-orchestra cacophony — endless rhythmic noise, mimicking first an early steam engine, later off-the-beat syncopations reminiscent of Stravinsky's neo-classic period — plus giving a nod to the Russian's Symphony in Three Movements. This piece might have worked well for the orchestra's IU audience on Jan. 25, where there were an abundance of Jacobs Music School students and grads.

But for the Palladium audience, it was a difficult-to-fathom start for any symphony program. Nonetheless, and predictably, the Clevelanders played it with all the precision we would expect, their brass and percussion standing out (perhaps as well as "drowning out").

The abrupt change-of-pace to the Haydn, with its small orchestra of strings plus paired horns and oboes, dominated by Ax's Steinway in front of them, was made more tolerable by the nearly ten-minutes it took to rearrange the stage and roll out the piano. The wait was worth it: Though the Haydn concerto was written for a harpsichord, the piano sounded in perfect balance with those exquisite strings, singing pitch perfect.

Ax's touch, technique and musicality brought out the composer's obvious nod to a lyric Mozart in the first two movements. Indeed I would have had trouble guessing which composer I was hearing — that is, until the more brusque, Haydnesque final movement. Those chamber-like forces gave us the near perfection of which Ax and Welser-Most are eminently capable.

Stravinsky's Capriccio confirmed the suggestion of his style, as forecast in the Adams piece. But it is a light-veined, softer, much more tolerable example of neo-classic Stravinsky, whose jauntiness was well captured in his beautiful orchestration — not to mention Ax's right-on-the-beat piano work. Anybody should enjoy this writing, especially when this well played.

"Well played" can certainly apply to Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93, the shortest of the composer's immortal Nine. And though the work's second movement pays homage to the metronome as later patented by Johann Maelzel, there seemed an overly metronomic aspect to the entire symphony. I think it was due to the overly deliberate tempo Welser-Most took all four movements, using a constant-tempo beat throughout.

This approach gave the symphony a lack of energy or verve. Historic revisionism has sped up the Beethoven symphonies in general from the later 20th century to the present. Welser-Most appears to side with mid-20th-century views and earlier, but without the use of rubati (short-duration tempo changes). After experiencing David Zinman's pacing for all nine of the Bonn master's symphonic oeuvre, plus other numerous ISO guest conductors, I found it difficult to get energized by the Cleveland approach — no matter how well played.

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