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CityMusic Cleveland at St. Colman Church (October 1)
Daniel Hathaway,, October 5, 2010

Last week, CityMusic Cleveland played all-Beethoven concerts in six venues -- a concert hall in Youngstown, and one Presbyterian and four Catholic churches in Cleveland Heights, Willoughby Hills, Cleveland and Elyria. Former music director (now principal artistic advisor) James Gaffigan was back to lead the 40-player ensemble in the Coriolan Overture, the 'Eroica' Symphony and the Violin Concerto with soloist Chee Yun. We caught up with the ensemble at St. Colman's on West 65th Street just after the halfway point in their busy first week of the season.

St. Colman's, one of the parishes which was to be closed and sold under the Catholic Diocese's recent consolidation plan, instead won a reprieve, making it possible, in addition to sponsoring other important community activities, to host CityMusic on Friday evening. And the neighborhood(s) certainly turned out: by fifteen minutes before start time, the nave was half full and by 8 pm something like a thousand enthusiastic people were gathered to enjoy the evening's free concert.

Barnstorming with a chamber orchestra to six different venues is a case study in adaptability. Not only does each hall need to be configured to seat the ensemble (platforms were used here to extend the altar area) but a variety of acoustical situations present themselves from place to place. In the case of St. Colman, the vast, gilded Baroque basilica was exceptionally live. European orchestras, accustomed to playing in alternative venues -- usually old churches -- routinely deal with overly reverberant halls. On Friday evening, Mr. Gaffigan's only words to the audience at the beginning of the program informed us that he had decided not to play the Coriolan Overture because "there are too many deails for this reverberant acoustic". Curious. We were looking forward to hearing its opening chords decay over all three beats of the rests that follow them, and wondered why the first piece contained any greater detail than those that followed!

Thus the five timpani strokes of the Violin Concerto began the performance, answered by the beautifully balanced wind section and a magnificent orchestral tutti that revealed what kind of sonic ambiance the ensemble was up against. Appropriately for an ecclesiastical space full of saints and angels, Beethoven was surrounded by a musical halo all evening. Chee Yun, playing with but only occasionally glancing at a score, turned a lovely phrase with her first entrance and managed to be clearly heard above the orchestra except when the lines moved into a lower register. In the Larghetto, Chee Yun's high, final notes of phrases were lovely. Choosing not to play a cadenza, she set up a lively tempo for the Rondo. Interpolating an accelerando toward the end, Mr. Gaffigan pressed the band triumphantly to the final cadence.

After a long intermission to accommodate a reception, the band and audience regrouped for an the 'Eroica' Symphony. Mr. Gaffigan had a clear plan for the performance, beginning it con brio and keeping up a fine level of energy throughout the work. Accents were nicely articulated and some expressive treatments were saved for their recapitulation (like the little stretches in the second theme). More might have been made out of the false horn entrance before the recapitulation (it's supposed to sound wrong!), but the downward tonality shifts (E-flat to D-flat to C) were strong and meaningfully articulated. Laying his baton aside, Mr. Gaffigan almost made a standalone work out of the Funeral March, so carefully and dramatically was it paced. The horn solo and lush string sounds were impressive moments before the coda. Much of the Scherzo disappeared into a haze, but the horns made a splendid event out of the Trio. The symphony came to a conclusion with the complicated finale. Here, Mr. Gaffigan reduced the strings to a quartet after the introduction and later punched up the fugal entrances. Heidi Ruby Kushious contributed a brilliant, crowning flute solo and the 'Eroica' culminated in a riot of horns.

It can't have been easy for CityMusic's players to hear each other clearly under these circumstances, and indeed there were a few moments when things didn't line up with the expected precision, but none of that really matters when you realize that a thousand people switched off their TV's and turned out on Cleveland's near West Side on a Friday night to hear Beethoven. CityMusic is onto a great thing here.