MUSICAL REBELS: CityMusic Cleveland @ Fairmount Presbyterian 5/6
CoolCleveland.com: May 14, 2008

And it wasn’t just the composers who were the rebels! Oh, no. One also has to include the superb young violinist Jennifer Koh along with intrepid conductor James Gaffigan in that category, as well. It certainly isn’t every conductor who, during spoken program notes confides charmingly, “you’ll either like it or you’ll want to get up and leave.” I think it’s safe to say that no one actually left during the Ligeti Violin Concerto on Tuesday evening’s performance at Fairmount Presbyterian Church. It was too spellbinding, entirely. You simply had to wonder what kind of musical fireworks would come next!

At first, it sounded like the orchestra was doing some rather extensive tuning – but no! That was the beginning of the concerto! There was a good bit of percussion utilized, including chimes, slide whistles and wood blocks. Several of the wind players also were assigned to learn the ocarina, which made for an interesting sound not usually heard in this context. The second movement allowed the solo instrument’s lower register to shine, in a gorgeous lyrical solo. As the wind instruments run out of air, the music slows and the pitch lowers gently, reminding me greatly of that line from ‘MacArthur Park’ –’Someone left the cake out in the rain . . ‘

It was the hair-raising third movement about which Mr. Gaffigan made the statement referred to earlier. And no wonder. The other four movements are why this one is called ‘challenging’. Many of the instruments were tuned differently, but played at the same time as the others, and some of this was played at extra-extra-extra loud (8 fs) according to the conductor! It’s rare indeed to find an orchestral piece played at more than 4 fs. Some of this volume continued into the fourth movement, but although shrill, it wasn’t unrelenting. The final movement sounded as though someone was crying in agony somewhere, before reverting to clangorous once again.

It was indeed a bravura performance, for which the immediate standing ovation and cheers resounding loudly through the sanctuary were richly deserved. One could easily exhaust the thesaurus looking for appropriate superlatives to apply to the soloist and the performance. Amazing certainly leads the list. If you missed hearing this week’s concerts, you missed an absolute sonic wonder.

From the beginning of the concert, it was obvious that this would be not the usual. Whoever heard of discordant Vivaldi? Well, here it was. His Sinfonia in B minor, subtitled At the Holy Grave, was somber in nature, almost a lament. The strings played luminously throughout the short piece.

After intermission it was American composer Charles Ives, who is absolutely a rebel when it comes to music. The Unanswered Question has been an enigma since it was written, defying any easy answers. But still, this was a confident performance of strings and winds in dialogue with each other, while the trumpet comments from the balcony, its sweet sounds wafting throughout the high-ceilinged sanctuary.

Beethoven’s First Symphony in C Major, Opus 21 must have been as shocking to those early nineteenth-century ears as the Ligeti is to ours, some two centuries later. After the precision and elegance of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven really pushed the envelope! Yet, today, it’s almost considered tame by comparison to his later works and those of the following century.

This was a brisk and vital reading that belied the word ‘old’ in every way. Except for some stylistic differences, it might have been written yesterday! Mr. Gaffigan conducted without baton, a technique more commonly used for choral music. Perhaps this contributed to the lyricism of the performance. He indulged in a bit of make-believe shadow-boxing with the cellos near the end of the first movement, the last notes of which reverberated beautifully through the open spaces.

The second movement was lyrical, and the concluding menuetto and finale were both light and vibrant, skittering merrily along towards the end. It was, overall, a most satisfying performance.

The traditional art exhibit that accompanies the CityMusic Cleveland concerts consisted of watercolors by the Plein Air Painters of Cleveland.

CityMusic Cleveland has announced their 2008-09 season, Details of this 5th Anniversary Season will shortly be available at their website.

From Cool Cleveland contributor Kelly Ferjutz artswriterATroadrunner.com

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