Cleveland Orchestra unleashed in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”

By Lawrence Budmen

Franz Welser-Most led the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Strauss, Debussy and Stravinsky Friday night at the Arsht Center. File photo: Carl Juste

Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Strauss, Debussy and Stravinsky Friday night at the Arsht Center. File photo: Carl Juste

While the music of Richard Strauss has long been a specialty of the house for the Cleveland Orchestra, rarely heard Debussy and a stunning performance of a landmark Stravinsky score took top honors at the second program of the Clevelanders’ annual Miami residency Friday night at the Arsht Center.  Acclaimed British baritone Simon Keenlyside added some vocal Strauss to a program that spanned the final decade of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth.

Strauss’ Don Juan, which opened the concert, has been a Cleveland showpiece since the legendary music directorship of George Szell.  While the orchestra’s lustrous strings and fine winds were strongly displayed, Franz Welser-Möst’s rapid tempos tended to make the score sound more like an overture than a tone poem. The famous horn theme, especially, was far too fast, the music lacking breadth and space. A very obvious horn fluff during a full ensemble passage also undercut this lightweight reading of Strauss’s showpiece.

Simon Keenlyside. Photo: Uwe Arens

Simon Keenlyside. Photo: Uwe Arens

Keenlyside is an intelligent artist with a voluminous, powerful baritone voice. Although there was no announcement made regarding Keenlyside being indisposed, he was clearly not at his best.

At times he almost resorted to crooning and, at one crucial point, his voice cracked on a high note. In Hymnus, the first of six Strauss songs, Keenlyside’s eyes were glued to the score and he sang at one unrelenting dynamic level.  He seemed to have difficulty with his lower register during Das Dichters Abendgang (Of the Poet’s Evening Walk). Traum durch die Dammerung (Dreaming at Twilight) and Morgen (Tomorrow) brought Keenlyside’s best singing of the night, his natural vocal warmth and straightforward, unaffected delivery suited to Strauss at his most lyrical. Welser-Möst led glowing accompaniments, the honeyed tone of Peter Otto’s violin solo rich in romantic hues.

In 1911 Claude Debussy collaborated with poet and dramatist Gabriele d’Annuncio, choreographer Michel Fokine, designer Leon Bakst and actress-dancer Ida Rubinstein on The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,  a theatrical spectacle, equal parts opera, ballet and mystery play.

Debussy extracted four symphonic fragments from the score. These rarely played excerpts find Debussy matching the moody, spare textures of Pelleas and Melisande with a more colorful palette. (The orchestration was partly the work of French composer-conductor Andre Caplet.)  The “Ecstatic Dance” suggests the modernity and orchestral color of Stravinsky’s contemporaraneous Firebird. In the final vision of “The Good Shepherd,” a wiry violin figure builds to an impassioned climax.  Props to Welser-Möst for programming this imaginative work. The orchestra’s eloquent and sensitive performance was wonderfully transparent, the cello and bass lines always clearly audible.

The premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) created a riot and scandal in 1913 and, over one hundred years later, the score’s raw harmonies and harsh dissonances still pack a wallop. Instead of a coolly cerebral reading or ultra brilliant traversal, Welser-Möst approached the score as theater music—highly colored and rhythmically alert. John Clouser’s strongly articulated, shapely bassoon solo preceded the onset of churning, primitive rhythms, given distinctly Russian flavoring by Welser-Möst.

The fired-up brass and percussion were in top form and the entire ensemble snapped to the myriad changes of meter and pulse. In the opening of Part II, a mix of misty harmonies and languid Russian soulfulness, the depth and luster of the massed strings took full flight. Welser-Möst whipped up a frenzy in the final sacrificial dance. A wonderfully supple play of dynamics and instrumental textures marked this freshly minted reading of a twentieth century masterwork.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami. 305-949-6722;

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Cleveland Orchestra unleashed in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring””

  1. Posted Feb 04, 2014 at 1:50 pm by Deborah Spencer

    I bought a ticket to each concert and flew down from NYC to hear Simon Keenlyside. Sat night was better than Friday night (which I think the reviewer is referring to above?) I know so little about Cleveland Orchestra, except its stellar reputation due to Szell. I had a great time and loved the Rite in particular. Thank you!

Leave a Comment

Sat Feb 1, 2014
at 2:08 pm
1 Comment