CityMusic Cleveland rings in the holidays with strings
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, Wednesday, December 07, 2011
The holiday season means holiday music, but not necessarily. All that’s required are sounds that lift spirits, warm hearts and keep ears joyously and serenely engaged.
CityMusic Cleveland is managing the feat this week with a program, “A Holiday Serenade,” that only briefly comes close to the topic. Mostly, guest conductor Joel Smirnoff and members of the excellent chamber orchestra immerse themselves in what amounts to a festival of works for strings.
Never mind that Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8, is known as the “Christmas Concerto.” Aside from the fact that it was commissioned for the holiday, the piece sends strings and harpsichord through varying degrees of frisky and poetic material before giving off a whiff of the season in the final movement, a lovely pastorale.
At Wednesday’s concert at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Smirnoff, president of the Cleveland Institute of Music and former first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, placed Corelli’s disarming lines in stylish focus. Peter Bennett provided a bit of early-music authority amid the modern instruments, which sounded polished and tasteful.
The night’s sole score that included anything but strings was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, which welcomes pairs of flutes, oboes and horns. But the center of attention was Joan Kwuon, who played the solo part with flair, elegance and lyrical beauty.
Kwuon – a faculty member at CIM and Smirnoff’s better half – sailed through Mozart’s acrobatic material, bringing buoyant attack to the sprightly lines. It was in the slow movement, however, that her artistry reached a peak. She sang the exquisite phrases as if cast as one of Mozart’s operatic heroines.
Smirnoff and the orchestra were generous collaborators in the concerto, after which the conductor took a break while 11 members of the ensemble played Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Concertmaster Miho Hashizume led a performance that was crisp, propulsive and full of dashing solo contributions, including Bennett’s cadenza in the short slow movement.
The full complement of strings was back for Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, a work so overflowing with affection and zest that it is an ideal vehicle to usher in any season. Smirnoff shaped the five movements with playful and passionate alacrity, drawing sonorities at once sweet, fiery and juicy from the CityMusic ensemble.