CityMusic Cleveland answers handsomely to no master but itself (review)
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, Thursday, March 7, 2013
Conductors weren’t important figures in front of orchestras until sometime in the 19th century, when the music became too big for ensemble members to shape works by themselves. So there’s nothing particularly strange – in the right pieces – about a modest-sized group of musicians performing as if they were immersed in chamber music.
CityMusic Cleveland is a chamber orchestra that usually has a conductor on hand for guidance, but this week’s program allows the players to make all of the decisions. At Wednesday’s concert at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, works by Mozart, Weber and Haydn fared extremely well as filtered through the corporate sensibilities of two dozen or so CityMusic musicians.
There was one case in which a conductor would be irrelevant. Carl Maria von Weber’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 34, was performed in a version with string orchestra that doubles the quartet parts and adds a bass for harmonic foundation.
What made the performance special was the dashing and poetic playing of the soloist, Daniel Gilbert, the orchestra’s principal clarinet and former second clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra. Nothing in Weber’s score appeared to faze this intrepid artist, who managed every acrobatic flight with panache and shaded the slow movement like a pensive opera singer.
Superb clarinetist that he is, Gilbert triumphed at the extremities. He sent streams of vibrant sound into space when he wasn’t playing at an almost inaudible hush. From the lowest passages to those in the skies, he maintained focus and achieved a spectrum of expressive subtleties.
The small contingent of string players, led by guest concertmaster Aaron Berofsky, interacted with Gilbert on the most intimate scale. They had a chance to sit back and listen when the clarinetist offered a captivating encore, one of Morton Gould’s eight “Benny’s Gig" duos, with bass player Tracy Rowell.
The orchestra showed prowess on its own in two symphonies. Although Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 26 in his teens, it’s a work of remarkable finesse and charm, the three movements played without pause. Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 is the creation of a seasoned master full of characteristic wit, suspense and lyricism.
The performances were articulate and flexible, with a real sense of give-and-take amid handsome ensemble and solo playing. The winds made especially fine contributions in the rustic pages of the Haydn, and the communal energy in the finale was infectious.
A conductor might have tinkered a bit with balances, asking the brasses to be mindful of the tiny number of strings. But CityMusic proved that a chamber orchestra can function splendidly when the repertoire is apt and the players are willing to mix liberation with compromise.