The Plain Dealer: April 28, 2006

The soloist and the conductor seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Let me be a tad more accurate: The soloist and the conductor seemed to be having the time of his life. We don’t often see anyone but pianists playing and conducting a concerto at once, but Franklin Cohen is showing this week that other musicians also can triumph in dual roles.
The Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist is doing two-fold honors in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with CityMusic Cleveland, the chamber orchestra that plays free concerts throughout the region. His performance Wednesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights was a display of transcendent artistry, whether he was guiding the ensemble or applying poetic vibrancy to this unparalleled creation.
Cohen approached the concerto not as a maestro, but as a chamber musician interacting with colleagues. He set clear tempos in the orchestral passages and used robust or subtle body language while sending Mozart’s phrases jubilantly or serenely into space.
It was a highly nuanced performance that benefited from Cohen’s tasteful embellishments and his deployment of a basset clarinet, the instrument with a four-note lower extension, for which Mozart wrote the piece. The wide leaps and ascending lines make much more sense on basset clarinet, and Cohen was so masterful as probing protagonist and acrobat that the music’s eloquence took on fresh dimensions. The orchestra sounded crisp and warm collaborating with Cohen.
The remainder of the program was led by James Gaffigan, the ensemble’s music director, who’s had quite a week. Sunday at Severance Hall in his final program as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, he conducted a forceful reading of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
His CityMusic repertoire this week is far less aggressive, though Gaffigan imbues everything with customary zest and flexibility. Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 (“La Passion”) received an intensely shaded reading that conveyed both the score’s darkness and buoyancy. The winds and horns were especially fine in the third-movement trio.
Gaffigan provided ample muscle in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”), even as he allowed phrases to relax. The second and third movements may have been a bit weighty for the music’s varied spirits, and the finale tended to race breathlessly. But the playing was alive to the moment and alert to Mendelssohn’s felicitous details.
The program, which was presented Thursday in Elyria, is repeated at 8 tonight at United Methodist Church of Willoughby Hills, 34201 Eddy Road; 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Stanislaus Church, 3649 East 65th St., Cleveland; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Rocky River Presbyterian Church, 21750 Detroit Road.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer Music Critic

© 2006 The Plain Dealer
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