The Plain Dealer: December 12, 2007

We need more fire than ice this time of year. And the former is what CityMusic Cleveland largely summoned in musical terms during its concert Tuesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights.

The program, led by guest conductor Julian Kuerti, was titled “Fire and Ice” to make the distinction between such simmering works as Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus” overture and Haydn’s “Fire” Symphony and the ostensibly cooler climatic conditions in Mozart’s Three German Dances, which includes an enchanting “Sleigh Ride,” and other pieces.

Kuerti, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony and son of former Clevelander and distinguished pianist Anton Kuerti, ensured that warmth and spark were key elements in the night’s performances. The conductor drew ultra-articulate and smoothly integrated playing from the chamber orchestra, whose free concerts throughout the area have become popular events.

Kuerti’s Beethoven — much like his father’s approach to the composer’s titanic piano sonatas — was full of dramatic urgency, breathing space and propulsion. Josef Suk’s Meditation on the old Czech chorale, “St. Wenceslas,” received loving treatment from the orchestra’s strings.

On a more lilting level were Debussy’s “Danses sacree et profane,” whose champion of swirling delicacy was harpist Megan Levin. These shimmering evocations of the dance seem to float on subtle and waltzing feet. Levin applied tonal beauty and nimble grace to both miniatures.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 (“Fire”) reveals the composer’s animated inventiveness and sly sense of harmonic motion. Kuerti pointed out dynamic contrasts, catapulted the fleet lines and allowed the subtle shifts to minor key to work their spell. The orchestra sounded crisp and alluring, with the horns likely hoping that some pitches on high hadn’t gotten away.

Mozart’s “Sleigh Ride” benefited from the presence of handbells to conjure wintry jollity, while the prayer from Tchaikovsky’s “Mozartiana” paid tribute to the Russian composer’s predecessor with all of the poetic expressivity the CityMusic forces could muster.

Kuerti and the players also basked in the tender and robust worlds in four of Dvorak’s “Legends,” which claim more melodic resourcefulness than most composers concoct in a lifetime. And even the audience got in on the holiday act — a sing-along of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” that reverberated through the church’s clear ambience.

CityMusic Cleveland
: The holiday concert “Fire and Ice.”
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Willoughby United Methodist Church, 15 Public Square; 7:30 p.m. Friday at Elyria First United Methodist Church, 312 Third St.; 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Stanislaus Church, 3649 East 65th St., Cleveland; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Westlake Schools Performing Arts Center, 27830 Hilliard Blvd.
Admission: Free. Go to www.CityMusicCleveland.org.

Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer Music Critic
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: drosenberg@plaind.com, 216-999-4269.

CityMusic Cleveland concerts are made possible by audience contributions.

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