A Valentine to My Hometown Band

Sunday, February 14 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

The Cleveland Orchestra
Mitsuko Uchida, conductor and pianist
William Preucil, concertmaster and leader

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 17 (1784)
Mozart, Symphony No. 34 (1780)
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 25 (1786)

“Go to the orchestra. It’s the best orchestra in the whole wide world, arguably, and it’s right in our city. Take the money you were going to spend on the Browns, take your kids, and go to the (bleeping) orchestra.” –Drew Carey, as quoted by Joe Posnanski

On a bitterly cold and blustery night not unlike the hundreds that I had once spent in Northeast Ohio, I attended a Cleveland Orchestra concert for the first time.  I had been quick to take up with the orchestras of my other adopted cities–Philadelphia, New York, even San Francisco, however forgettable that experiment was–and musical experiences have shaped much of my perceptions of each place.  But not the city where I actually spent my formative years.  No, like everything else about the Midwest, one doesn’t know what one had all along until one–or it–is gone.  It’s a sports town, anyway.

And on this fine evening, the (quite literally) white-collar band from the blue-collar town played an all-Mozart program that, even sans its Austrian music director, is probably as old school European as one can find on this side of the Atlantic.  Actually the program started off rather shakily.  Dame Mitsuko Uchida, bless her heart, is undoubtedly one of the most esteemed Mozart interpreters of all time, but I’m not convinced that conducting from the piano bench suits her.  The first notes of the orchestra lacked focus and clarity, and the dame’s passionate gesturing seemed to be less for communicating directions to the orchestra players but rather to get herself–and possibly the audience–into the affect.  Of course, her own playing was crisp, thoughtful, and overall textbook flawless, but as impressive as it is to watch her at times playing the piano with one hand while conducting with the other, there was also one too many pause where a smoother transition should have been between orchestral parts and piano solos.  The woodwind passages in the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 17, however, were incredibly well-done.  Luxurious and profound, these were the best flute and oboe principals of any orchestra that I have heard yet.

In the symphony that followed, the orchestra showed that they are perfectly capable of playing without a conductor.   Symphony No. 34 isn’t among the more memorable of Mozart’s works, at least not for me, but I will remember this performance and how in sync the orchestra was, playing as if the nearly 50 musicians were one.  The Cleveland strings, though not the greatest in the world (but pretty close), imbued the score with a rather chamber-like quality, and it worked well.  While not the emotional gauntlet of a Beethoven symphony, it was nevertheless a very pleasant, intimate half hour of music that cleanses the ear, if not the mind.

Returning to the stage to once again conduct from the piano, Dame Uchida was more successful in her conducting with the final piece of the program, Piano Concerto No. 25.  While listening to it on Youtube earlier in the week, I found myself very drawn to the middle Andante movement, which had reminded me of that poignant Adagio from the composer’s 23rd Piano Concerto.  On this evening, however, lonesome was not the direction the soloist pursued.  Instead, the performance was majestic nearly throughout, as the pianist skillfully highlighted the composer’s expressive chromaticism while supplying her own cadenza that fastforwards the piece just ever so slightly into Beethovenian territory.  In fact the performance reminded me very much of Beethoven’s Fourth by the Berlin Philharmonic.  Not a bad band to be compared to, I suppose, though at the end of the night, I don’t think I’d heard enough to impartially assess Drew Carey’s claim.  I mean, he’s certainly right about the Cleveland Orchestra being a much better value for the buck than the Browns, but what isn’t?  Objectively though, the brass winds barely registered in the instrumentation tonight, and even the New York Philharmonic would sound like Berlin if the score didn’t call for brass.  But objectivity be damned, I am so proud to be a Clevelander right now.  Our sports teams may be perennial heartbreaks and the rest of America may only remember our state’s existence during presidential campaigns, but our orchestra is legit.  And better than Boston’s, that’s a promise.
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