October 20th, 2015
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — A late afternoon of solid repertoire was an auspicious beginning to CityMusic Cleveland’s 2015-16 season, with Schumann’s “Spring” symphony and the Violin Concerto in D major by Brahms.
Avner Dorman, CityMusic’s music director, was on the podium for a series of concerts whose venues ranged from Dublin, Ohio to Slavic Village in Cleveland. Sunday afternoon’s concert was in the Church of the Gesu in University Heights.
Gesu’s sanctuary provided a good acoustic space for the chamber orchestra of 38 players, with its shoebox shape and flat ceiling. The sound traveled from the stage to the ears with surprising impact, giving the impression of a much larger ensemble.
CityMusic’s aggregation was only about 10 players shy of the 49 or so musicians that made up the chamber-sized Meiningen Court Orchestra, which premiered many of Brahms’ works, so its size was actually quite appropriate for the first work on the program, Brahms’ magisterial Violin Concerto, with up-and-coming violinist Sayaka Shoji.
Shoji has played mostly with major European orchestras, and has recorded for Deutsche Gramophone, but her widest fame may come from her video of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, currently one of the most viewed classical music videos on YouTube.
Shoji’s instrument is the 1729 Recamier Stradivarius, an instrument with a big voice that projects strongly in its lower range, even over orchestral accompaniment, but maintains a warm sweetness of tone as it ascends to its highest notes.
Dorman set a stately pace for the lengthy opening movement. Shoji’s entrance was appropriately dramatic, with finely controlled runs and confident double and triple stops. Her command of Brahms’ demanding writing was impressive throughout, but so was her understanding of the composer’s emotional intent. The cadenza was especially well played.
CityMusic’s interim principal oboist Mary Kausek played the deceptively simple solo that opens the Adagio with admirable tone and supple phrasing, a nice counterpart to Shoji’s generous reading of this songlike romance.
In the finale, Shoji unleashed a torrent of virtuosity, leading Brahms’ foursquare dance with great èlan. CityMusic’s players were equally up to the task, keeping pace with Dorman’s top-gear tempos. The four horns were brilliant and burnished, though at times their impact was greater than the ensemble’s size mandated.
Before CityMusic undertook Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat, the “Spring” symphony, Dorman discussed the issue of Schumann’s original opening versus Mendelssohn’s revision of the famous horn and trumpet call. Schumann, he said, was new to orchestral writing and misunderstood the capabilities of the brass instruments, especially the valveless horns that were in use in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn was preparing the work’s premiere.
The problem, he explained, was that the brass instruments could not reliably sound the notes that Schumann had written. Mendelssohn’s solution was to raise the phrase by a major third, which has become the standard version in subsequent decades.
Dorman followed Mahler’s example, which restored the opening call to its original notes, now easily achieved by valved instruments. The reading of this exuberant and optimistic symphony that followed was enthusiastic and, if a little ragged at times, quite satisfying, thanks to Dorman’s overall conception of the piece, and the energy of the ensemble’s young players.
Sunday’s reading might have benefited from a few more string players. Schumann’s soaring string writing sometimes came across a little thin, and the fifteen violinists and violists had to work a little bit harder to make their presence fully felt.
CityMusic Cleveland is a professional chamber orchestra that performs free concerts throughout Northeast Ohio,often accompanied by exhibits of local artwork.
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