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CityMusic Cleveland goes straight to the Strauss for its sparkling holiday program (review)
Mark Satola, The Plain Dealer, December 06, 2013

This year's holiday concert by the CityMusic Cleveland orchestra leapfrogged past Christmas and landed squarely on New Year's Day, as guest conductor Stefan Willich led the young players in a program of light Viennese favorites with just enough musical substance to make for an entertaining evening.

Willich comes to the podium with an unusual resume, as a conductor with impressive pedigree and credentials (studies with the legendary Sergiu Celibidache; president of the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory in Berlin), and as a leading cardiologist and director of Berlin's Charité University Medical Center.

He founded the World Doctors Orchestra in 2007, a fortuitous intersection of two seemingly disparate but surprisingly congruent vocations.

Fairmount Presbyterian Church was packed to the rafters for Wednesday night's concert, which featured star turns by guest artists Jack Sutte, second trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra, and soprano Stacey Mastrian, a talented newcomer who has drawn attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Willich opened proceedings with a crisp reading of Johann Strauss Jr.'s Overture to “Die Fledermaus.” CityMusic Cleveland’s relatively small size – just 34 players, including timpani and percussion – was no hindrance to achieving a full orchestral sound. Fairmount's smaller, easy-to-fill sonic space was partly responsible, but the group's fine ensemble playing contributed to the effect as well.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel ensured his continued relevance when he wrote his Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major, thereby adding to the slender repertoire that trumpeters must draw on for their solo performances.

Sutte played the lightweight but agreeable work with grace and skill, as befits an artist of his caliber, bringing poise to the concerto's somewhat prosaic first movement. It's in the second movement, however, that Hummel really grasps the character of the trumpet, and Sutte took advantage of Hummel's dark, minor-key aria, bringing great depth of feeling to the wordless lament.

In the finale, catchy tunesmithing combines with technical pyrotechnics, which Sutte met with aplomb, though some of Hummel's fast triplet combinations kept the soloist on his toes.

Mastrian made a fine impression in two arias from “Die Fledermaus.” Hers is a voice with a noteworthy upper range, reaching showstopping heights with ease and control, though her lower range was frequently inaudible. That may have been due to the high arch of Fairmount's ceiling, which can all too easily swallow up softer tones.

In Adele's “Laughing Song” and the aria “When I play the innocent from the country,” Mastrian was nimble and coquettish, her quick vibrato adding to the music's lightness. In the lower-pitched “Gypsy Song” from Strauss' “The Gypsy Baron,” she was less effective; a darker and more resonant voice was called for.

Her rendition of the “Vilja Song” from Lehar's “The Merry Widow,” however, was vocally winning and dramatically perfect.

As a Strauss conductor, Willich is a little more “Northern” than one is accustomed to hearing in this relaxed and generous repertoire. His readings eschewed heavy atempausen – the tiny hesitations in the waltz tempo that give it an extra lilt – in favor of well-shaped phrases and, where called for, judiciously applied rubato.

His faster tempos worked to sparkling effect, as in his high-speed take on Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch” (“Gossip”) polka, where the pace underscored just how much fun gossip can be.

Willich's program upended one Viennese tradition. At the New Year’s Day concerts in Vienna’s Musikverein, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” is always the first encore; on CityMusic’s program, it opened the second half of the concert.

For his encore, Willich led his players in Strauss’ “Emperor Waltz,” an unexpected (and substantial) choice for the end of what was already a lengthy program.

Satola is a freelance writer in Shaker Heights who works as an announcer for WCLV FM/104.9.