Dance

Review: The Cleveland Orchestra, Keenlyside, and Stravinsky

Posted By ArtBurst Team
October 18, 2015 at 6:39 PM

The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser- Mőst continued its Miami season January 31 at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall by bringing along a major guest. Simon Keenlyside — since the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau — the finest baritone before the public today, sang a generous program of orchestral songs by Richard Strauss. It was an extraordinary experience. Billed as “Poetry, Song & Dance,” the program opened with Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, Op. 20, and closed with two major landmarks of 20th-century dance: Symphonic Fragments from Claude Debussy’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, and the complete 1947 version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Keenlyside, though, was the main event. Strauss adored the human voice and wrote more than 200 songs in addition to his vast operatic output. While most were originally intended for singer and piano alone, a few were composed with an orchestra in mind and several also were orchestrated by the composer himself or by friends under his supervision. The Cleveland selection was varied, with familiar gems alongside rarities. Two of them, especially touching, were the composer’s wedding gift to his wife in 1894, Ruhe, meine Seele! (Rest, My Soul), and the sublime Morgen (Tomorrow). Others ranged from the visionary 1897 Hymnus, a harbinger of operas to come, to Des Dichters Abendgang (Of the Poet’s Evening Walk), Traum durch die Dämmerung (Dreaming at Twilight), and Pilgers Morgenlied (Pilgrim’s Morning Song). Keenlyside’s artistry in all of them was itself a thrilling spectacle, uncanny musicality married to impetuosity, intelligent attention to the words buoyed by ideal breath support, legato and canny portamento, dynamic control at the service of drama and perhaps above all a glorious voice whose lyricism belies its considerable power. Space allows for only one example, so let it be Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4, orchestrated by the composer and a favorite of great singers since its premiere by Strauss’ wife Paulina de Anha in 1897. It begins as if in the middle of a conversation, the orchestra already leading up seemingly somewhere else when the voice enters and surprises with the quiet realization that “and tomorrow the sun will shine again / … and we lucky ones shall again be united/and silently we shall gaze at one another/and happiness shall surround us in silence.” There was real love in Keenlyside’s delivery, dramatic truth in this lover’s serene realization that this indeed is true love. The silence at the end — very different emerging from the solo violin’s exquisite legato in the orchestral version than rising from the rests between the piano’s percussive single notes — was as ecstatic as any of Strauss’ later vocal miracles from Capriccio to the Four Last Songs. The Cleveland Orchestra, its own miraculous strings in full splendor, seemed to breathe along with the singer. Maestro Welser-Mőst, a superstar conductor in both the opera and concert stages, has enriched The Cleveland Orchestra’s programming at home considerably by including fellow Zurich Opera alumni like Keenlyside and Jonas Kaufmann. May they make a habit of coming to Miami. The youthful Don Juan, Op. 20, is a Cleveland Orchestra staple and received a vibrant, exciting reading under Welser- Mőst, marred only by a ragged entrance before the final episode. After intermission, the juxtaposition of Debussy and Stravinsky proved revelatory, two ballets from composers usually thought of as light years apart, both here clearly products of the same Zeitgeist. Ida Rubinstein’s ballet The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, with a recited original libretto by Gabriele D’Annunzio, was scandalous enough to warrant a warning from the Bishop of Paris that Catholics should stay away from the theater on pain of excommunication. It sold out, of course. The scandal surrounding Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring is well known, with the music barely heard through all the booing at the world premiere. Hearing the music today divorced from the dance, Debussy at the Arsht Center sounded like Stravinsky’s Parisian cousin, the eerie and tense sound world of St. Sebastian echoing the quieter moments of Firebird. The Clevelanders were splendid, again save for several truly messy entrances in The Rite of Spring — unanimity of attack is not high among this great orchestra’s virtues. The brass and woodwinds were impressive, especially the seductive oboes and clarinets and the downright dangerous contrabassoon. The strings, most impressively the basses, positively shone in the ideal acoustics of the Knight Concert Hall. PHOTO: Keenlyside in Don Giovanni, credit: Roger Mastroianni

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