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Mainly Marvelous! CityMusic Cleveland @ Fairmount Presbyterian Church 12/9/09
December 10, 2009, CoolCleveland.com, Kelly Ferjutz

CityMusic Cleveland performs several series of concerts each year, including one in December. These are not, however, ‘holiday’ concerts as other groups provide: no, last year it was titled “Not Your Usual Holiday Concert.” That seems as good a title as any, actually, and is hinted at by the real title “Mainly Mozart” for this series. Considering that all the music listed in the printed program was by Mozart, this was a tad confusing. However, all was made clear by the end of the evening, to the delight of the capacity audience at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights.

Because music director James Gaffigan is on sabbatical this season, each concert series features a guest conductor. This week was quite special, as a local musician more well-known for his instrumental prowess, and more recently, his educational/administrative prowess, was able to demonstrate his conducting prowess. Joel Smirnoff, formerly a member of the Juilliard Quartet, and currently President of CIM, made his area conducting debut in these concerts. Coincidentally or not, all three works by Mozart featured mostly strings. (Pairs of horns and oboes appeared in the opening and closing numbers.)

The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K. 364, exhibited the composer at his most mature: he was all of 32, nearly twice the age at which he composed the other two works on the program! (And what were you doing at 16 and/or 17 years of age?)

It’s always special when a member of the orchestra steps forward to perform as soloist, as did Jessica Oudin, usually principal violist of the ensemble. However, violinist Nathan Olson is also local, having studied at CIM, and is currently concertmaster of the Canton Symphony. They were superbly in sync with each other, blending or playing musical tag. His sound was a tad more robust, hers a tad more mellow (especially in the lower register) and together they made glorious music.

Mr. Smirnoff obviously has an affinity for this music, and conducted with a firm—but not rigid—manner, ensuring he’d get what he wanted, but also allowing an intriguing degree of elasticity here and there. The orchestra was extremely responsive to matters of rhythm and dynamics. Mostly, he was economical in his use of gestures, but larger motions were used on occasion for special emphasis.

The Divertimento in D major, K. 136 is in three movements, and was obviously written during a happy, upbeat time for the teen-aged Mozart. The piece fairly bubbles over with exuberance and wit. The andante middle movement sounded for all the world like an slightly-overgrown string quartet with double bass thrown in to provide a bit of foundation for the richness of the higher-pitched strings. The finale marked presto was just that. Fast. However, there were also periods of contrasting dynamics which allowed the orchestra to demonstrate truly soft playing before returning to louder again. If not a real musical ‘joke’ it was at least good for a smile.

Soprano Chabrelle Williams (who made a smashing debut with this orchestra last spring) returned for one of Mozart’s most beautiful creations: Exsultate, jubilate," K. 165. The joyful music seemed perfectly suited for the young singer, whose voice is agile, with a wide range. In addition, she is blessed with a great sense of pitch and fabulous diction. Shimmering and silvery in tone, her voice floated easily over the orchestra. The Alleluja was especially gorgeous, as she engaged in musical tag with principal oboe Rebecca Schweigert.

When the ovation for the musicians had run its course, and many people began to leave, a seemingly disappointed Mr. Smirnoff returned to the podium to lead musicians and audience in a singalong of everyone’s favorite carol. Silent Night. Thus was explained the ‘mainly’ of the title.

The next set of concerts by CityMusic Cleveland will be February 3-7, 2010. Both conductor and soloist have appeared here before: Daniel Rachev and Matt Haimovitz. For specifics, visit the website: http://www.citymusiccleveland.org or call 216.321.8273.