Monday, March 2, 2009

The Cleveland Orchestra - February 12, 2009

Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg
Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4

Well this concert was my first live Cleveland Orchestra experience, and I’m so glad I went! The hall they play in is incredible, and very very different than the Pittsburgh Symphony venue I’ve gotten used to. Where Heinz Hall (PSO) is very romantic, very lavish, with marble and sculpture and gold leaf and red velvet everywhere, Severance Hall (Cleveland) is smaller, a sort of metallic post- decco feeling room. The ceiling and walls are covered in muted shades of silver and gold, and it keeps the eye busy. The ante-room before the hall itself, on the other hand, is painted in a faux-Greek/Egyptian-hieroglyphic motif with a lot of texture between the panels. The art and architecture of the halls of different orchestras are always interesting to me - as an audience member, the weight and feel of a room can have an enormous impact on the concert-going experience. I sometimes wonder what would draw non-musicians to a classical music concert, what they would think, what would interest them, and in that sense I think that simply the grandeur and immensity of a venue can make an orchestra concert into a memorable experience before the music even begins. It’s not often in the day-to-day life of most people that one is exposed to the visual opulence found in many performance spaces. Clearly many halls are works of art in their own right, and I continue to be struck by that at my concert experiences both as a performer and an audience member.

My friend and I drove up to the concert from Akron and were running a little late (finding parking was harder than we thought it would be), and arrived in the hall just as the Barber was beginning. So while we listened to this one standing in the back behind some glass, it was obvious even from there that this ensemble is a machine. I’m really not sure what recording production for them could involve, because this concert was like listening to an expertly-mastered cd on the world‘s Most Awesome Speakers. J Surely someone who’s used to listening to this level of ensemble perform live might disagree, but to a Cleveland Orchestra newbie like me, the balance and blend and precision of sound was just amazing.

After the first piece was over, we were herded frantically by the ushers to our seats which were up against the edge of the stage so that we were looking up at the basses. I had never heard of Nikolaj Znaider before, but his Brahms D-Major Violin Concerto was just breathtaking. I wish I had been able to see him better (Maestro Steinberg was blocking my view - the nerve!), but I can’t imagine it would have mattered much. Absolutely amazing. Ethereal but at the same time passionate. Need I gush more? I may need to invest in some recordings of his . . .

Ditto most of the above gushing for Tchaik 4. Powerful, expressive, vast and also chamber-like in moments. I did notice the piccolo crack a note in the notorious third-movement solo, which was actually nice in a way - it was the most humanizing thing about the whole concert.

As for my overall impression, let me say this: for years I’ve heard people talk about the differences in orchestras - Chicago is all about brass, Cleveland is very “European,” etc etc. But honestly I’d never really been acutely aware of the differences listening to recordings. But having really gotten used to the Pittsburgh sound and then going to a Cleveland concert . . . it was truly surprising (although I suppose it shouldn’t have been) how different they were. I mean, I had known that orchestras sounded different from each other in theory, but have never really experienced such a stark difference myself. Perhaps all this concert-going is making my ears better, after all.

If I may nerd-out as a flutist for a moment (I try to avoid that generally), I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that half of the Cleveland Orchestra flute section (Joshua Smith and Saeran St. Christopher) play on wooden headjoints! What instruments people in the top orchestral flutists are using has never come up in conversation with my colleagues and teachers before (though I know brass players talk about it all the time!) . . . but still, it just seemed like something I should have known. Also, if I can comment on the woodwinds as a whole, they have a very open, light sound that I liked once my ears adjusted to it (perhaps this explains the use of wooden headjoints on the flutes). At times they sounded almost like woodwind-stops on an organ. I wonder if this is somewhat unique to their orchestra, if it’s part of their “European” sound that I’ve heard about, or if I’ll encounter it as I venture to other orchestras. I hope to see Cleveland again before the season is up, and come fall I’ll be moving to Philadelphia to listen to that orchestra for a season, so expect lots of Philly/Baltimore/National/NYC blogs to come next season!


thechuck said...

Wow, sounds like a lot of fun! Hopefully I'll be able to make it up to C-land and hear a concert or two!

Steven said...

fyi: Saeran St. Christopher was at OU for one year, 04-05.

Steven said...

...the same year I started.

thechuck said...

Totally pumped about the concert tonight.

Chuck said...


tony said...

Excellent review of the concert