Charming Rarities from CityMusic Cleveland

May 22nd, 2019

United StatesUnited States F. Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Kodály: Amit Peled (cello), CityMusic Cleveland / Mélisse Brunet (conductor), St. Jerome Church, Cleveland, Ohio, 19.5.2019. (MSJ)

Fanny Mendelssohn – Overture in C major

Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33; Symphony No.2 in A minor, Op.55

Kodály – Dances of Galánta

CityMusic Cleveland was founded in 2004 as a professional chamber orchestra offering free concerts throughout various Cleveland neighborhoods. For the final concert of their fifteenth season, guest conductor Mélisse Brunet assembled a clever program of rarities and more familiar fare.

To open came a work by a Mendelssohn, but instead of the usual Felix it was by his sister Fanny, who was reputed in childhood to be equally talented, if not more so, than her brother. The sexism of the day, unfortunately, meant that Felix would become the world-famous composer while Fanny was told to get married and bear children. Unlike a number of other discouraged female composers, she never stopped composing, even when there were virtually no chances of her voice being heard.

Not all of Fanny’s music challenges the primacy of her brother’s work, but the innocuously-titled Overture in C major most certainly does. On the surface, it is a standard post-Beethoven, early romantic overture. At any moment, it could easily be mistaken for the work of her sibling. But even though Fanny was working in the conservative format of a sonata-form movement, there are instances of abrupt changes of direction and inspired discursions that hold their own against any more famous overture from that period. Mélisse Brunet led the ensemble with conviction, reveling in the lovely second theme, while ensuring that woodwind details never got lost under the strings.

Any fears of the audibility of the cello against an orchestra in a church acoustic were dispelled by Amit Peled’s first entrance in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor. A brilliant young Israeli musician, Peled’s glowing sound penetrates textures without ever becoming overbearing. Given his energy and flair, the single-movement work leaped off the page.

Peled’s tone is big and throbbing in dramatic parts, but he also scales it back for introspective passages, restricting vibrato at breathtaking transitional moments. He inhabited a full range of moods, from the restless opening to the graceful poise in the middle, to the return of the restless material at the end. It is surprising that a player of such vivid presence is not better known, for his performance was the equal of many more famous names, and Brunet and the orchestra interacted freshly with him, establishing a genuine dialogue. The cellist followed with an encore of the ‘Prayer’ from Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life.

Even rarer is Saint-Saëns’s Second Symphony, also in A minor. It made a wonderful companion to the concerto, and like the Fanny Mendelssohn overture, it deserves to be heard more often. Some minor flaws aside (presumably what held it back), and though it remarkably predates Saint-Saëns’s famous ‘Organ’ Symphony by twenty-five years, it is recognizably the work of the same hand. Fastidiously classical, the composer’s second symphony nonetheless erupts in flamboyantly romantic exuberance time and time again, even when delivering a textbook-perfect fugue in the first movement.

Brunet sorted the textures to keep Saint-Saëns’s compulsive academic side from getting the upper hand over the forward propulsion of his ideas, and repeatedly found moments of scoring and melody that can only be described as delicious. Particularly charming was the third-movement Scherzo, which wore its Beethoven-via-Felix Mendelssohn influence lightly, capped by a most unusual subdued reprise, dispatched with a crisp final chord. The Finale was likewise beguiling, showing off the deft ensemble.

On paper, Zoltan Kodály’s Dances of Galánta might look like a strange conclusion for this concert, but including it was a stroke of brilliance: in the opening dance, there is a phrase that is a close cousin of a portion of the main theme of the Saint-Saëns concerto. Additionally, the expressive freedom of the Kodály — after the relative restrained, neo-classical romanticism of Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns — was a delight. With swift and sure-footed assurance, Brunet and the ensemble made the most of the Hungarian composer’s bright orchestral colors, including a lovely clarinet solo played by Ellen Breakfield Glick.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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