Upshaw, Luisotti deliver taut, compelling performances with Cleveland Orchestra
For the middle program of its 2012 residency, the Cleveland Orchestra delivered a taut, compelling performance Friday night at the Arsht Center, which continued to mark a strong improvement over its last year’s sleepy Miami season.
Leading the ensemble as guest conductor was Nicola Luisotti, music director of the San Francisco Opera, and his idiosyncratic style and almost-authoritarian mastery of the orchestra brought an unusual excitement to the concert. The program itself represented a vast improvement over last season’s selection of overplayed classics, with a great 20th century symphony and a set of vocal works by one of the world’s most popular living composers.
The soprano Dawn Upshaw joined the orchestra for Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra. Upshaw, who has worked closely with the Argentine composer, has made something of a specialty of these songs, composed from 1999 to 2001 as separate works but assembled by the composer into a cycle in which they’re usually performed today.
The songs are highly accessible—almost excessively so, and you wonder how much they will stick to the ribs after repeated hearings. But they make the most of Upshaw’s luminous voice and vocal range, and this sensual, tactile, evocative music invites the listener to just bask in the warmth of her voice and the rich sounds of the orchestra.
The first song, Night of the Flying Horses, is a Yiddish lullaby with a distinctly eastern European tone but without a trace of ethnic kitsch. It opened with Upshaw singing without accompaniment but with dead-on intonation, vocal warmth and expressive, almost free-form phrasing. Particularly notable was a long dark tutti that ended the work, with sonorous rumblings in the lower strings and sudden burst of Golijov’s tango-like electricity in the violins.
In Lúa Descolorida, sung in the Gallego language of the Galicia region of Spain, Upshaw revealed the vulnerable side of her vocal personality, singing softly and with great emotional expressiveness in the woman’s sad nighttime lament to the moon. The strongest song was the last, How Slow the Wind, set to lines of Emily Dickinson, a pulsing, finely paced work in which Upshaw sang in a yearning manner that drew on the smoky lower register of her voice.
In Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, Luisotti drew from the orchestra a performance of great nervous tension and ensemble precision. The first movement opened at a slow pace and Luisotti calibrated the volumes with great care, yielding a climax of shattering power. The bouncy second movement can come off as raucous and chaotic in the wrong hands, but Luisotti drew the bow as tight as possible while allowing for wild bursts of energy. Strings played in biting and strongly marked manner, with an almost violent performance of the opening theme. At a couple of points Luisotti stopped conducting, holding his arms out as if to give the orchestra he had kept under such tight restraint a sudden rush of freedom. The quiet brass choir passage toward the end of the movement was particularly compelling, full of ominous energy that suddenly opened up as the full orchestra returned to the opening them.
The brooding third movement was taken with a surprising coolness that gave it an ominous quality, allowing the pulsing repeated figures in the strings to achieve the effect with closely calibrated dynamics. The final movement built slowly and thanks to Luisotti’s control of the orchestra and the ensemble’s unity of attack, built to an explosive climax.
The concert opened with the Triumphal March and Ballet Music from Verdi’s Aïda. Performed with a full-sized symphony orchestra rather than the medium-sized ensemble that accompany operas, Verdi’s big, assertive music acquired unusual weight. Particularly impressive were the brass players, whose brought an unaccustomed brilliance and finesse to the work without a trace of raucousness or rawness.
The Cleveland Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. arshtcenter.org, 305-949-6722
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Sat Mar 3, 2012
at 2:53 pm