Heroic Strauss best in Cleveland Orchestra’s mixed Miami opener

By David Fleshler

Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Debussy, Schumann and Strauss Friday night at the Arsht Center. Photo: Roger Mastroianni

The Cleveland Orchestra opened the fifth season of its Miami residency Friday with a program of classics that included a subdued performance of Schumann’s piano concerto and a virtuoso account of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The orchestra has experimented with various types of programs for South Florida audiences and seems to have settled on conservative programs of popular works in Miami. Upcoming concerts offer such fare as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Ravel’s Bolero and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The crowd at the Arsht Center Friday night gave the orchestra a South Florida welcome—coughers and latecomers walking in loudly on high-heels—for which the Knight Concert Hall is as resonant as a Stradivarius. The distractions forced music director Franz Welser-Möst to stand on the podium with his back to the audience until the noise stopped. He raised his baton, and, as if responding to his cue, someone emitted a cough perfectly timed to obliterate the first flute notes of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The brilliant, adventurous French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was an oddly restrained soloist in the Schumann Piano Concerto, playing in a conversational manner that left out much of the work’s poetry and exuberance. At first the muted approach seemed to work, giving a gentle glow to the second theme of the first movement. Surfaces were unblemished and everyone played well. But there was a monotony to the performance that didn’t do justice to the work.

This is not Rachmaninoff and there’s little room in the Schumann concerto for grand gestures or keyboard-pounding virtuosity. Yet the pianist’s unvaried dynamics and lack of tonal color made for a flat and disappointing performance. The graceful theme of the second movement seemed earthbound. And in the last movement, where Schumann’s joyous writing gives the pianist the opportunity to open up, Aimard, Welser-Möst and the orchestra just kept ambling along in an oddly mechanical manner.

The huge tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, is one of Richard Strauss’s grand, virtuoso orchestral works that provides great opportunities for a first-rate ensemble like the Cleveland Orchestra. Welser-Möst stepped onto the podium and before the applause died out signaled the cellos for a brisk statement of the heroic opening theme.

This was by far the most successful performance of the evening. The orchestra’s tremendous string section shone throughout in Strauss’ soaring melodies, keen-edged at the top and dark and deep at the bottom. In the elaborate violin solos that represent the hero’s companion, concertmaster William Preucil played with a singing tone, effortless virtuosity and an insinuating intensity that brought out the romantic essence.

The Battle section could have used a stronger sense of musical violence, but the brass were weighted and resonant in the ferocious chords that indicate the hero’s time of combat. And in the end, the sense of quiet repose felt earned, not static and lifeless.

This Debussy that opened the concert was expertly played, with gleaming colors and textures in the winds, and pulsing sensuality in the strings.

As an encore, the orchestra performed a softly radiant account of Träumerei am Kamin from Strauss’ opera Intermezzo.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. arshtcenter.org; 305-949-6722.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Heroic Strauss best in Cleveland Orchestra’s mixed Miami opener”

  1. Posted Jan 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm by Bruce

    Sadly had to miss this concert. William Preucil is one of the great master violinists and it would have been a privilege to hear him in the Strauss.

  2. Posted Jan 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm by Vincent

    We noticed very big problems with crowd noise in a previous year when attending Cleveland Orchestra concert in Knight Concert Hall. Cell phones and other devices were extremely distracting throughout the entire very sensitive first half. Someone’s iPod was also playing. We surely hope they have addressed these issues, but it sounds like there are still issues. Otherwise its a great delight to hear the CO in Miami!

  3. Posted Feb 01, 2011 at 2:34 pm by alicia

    All I can say is that I attended the performance Saturday and I was deeply moved. It sounded terrific and I was not that aware of “Miami noises” In addition some kids in my family attended also and they both said they liked it, specially the oldest that, according to his parents, “would not stop taking about the piano concert and how much he enjoyed it”.

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Sat Jan 29, 2011
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