Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Möst get a boisterous Miami welcome back

By Lawrence Budmen

Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night at Arsht Center in Miami. File photo: Michael Pöhn, courtesy IMG Artists

The Cleveland Orchestra is the most classical of American symphonic ensembles. In their blending and cohesion, the instrumental forces have the intimacy and precision of great chamber groups, and for 14 consecutive years, pre-pandemic, the Clevelanders’ annual Miami residencies were a high point of the music season. 

The relationship was interrupted by Covid-19 until the orchestra returned in November, after three years away, for a joint concert with the New World Symphony under the baton of New World maestro Michael Tilson Thomas. On Friday night, the orchestra had the Arsht Center stage to itself — and will through January 28, plus a trip on Monday to West Palm Beach — with their own music director, Franz Welser-Möst, conducting.

While the program on Friday consisted of standard repertoire — symphonies by Schubert and Tchaikovsky — there was nothing routine or phoned-in about the performance. Welser-Möst’s long tenure at the podium has produced a responsive instrumental corps, with conductor and orchestra avoiding overt flashiness in favor of finely gauged readings of the orchestral literature. That neither work in this Friday-to-Monday program has a loud or flamboyant ending underscored the orchestra’s dedication to interpretive insight over bombast. At the same time, the Cleveland Orchestra didn’t cheat on the dramatic spikes and emotional flourishes contained within both works.

The two completed movements of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished) lack nothing in terms of discourse or satisfying finality, and Welser-Möst and his musicians presented a reading that blew away the cobwebs that collect around familiar works. The mysterious first measures on lower strings were potently realized. The opening Allegro moderato proceeded with a lighter touch and careful attention to its dynamic contrast, while the lyricism of the movement’s secondary theme emerged organically, without overemphasis. The sweetness of the well-coordinated winds, the warmth and unanimity of the strings, and the mellow brass sonority were all beguiling.

The second-movement Andante con moto seemed, by comparison, like the calm after a storm. The serenity of its main theme was shaped with the almost vocal sweep of an art song, and Welser-Möst engendered an air of pensiveness in the movement’s central episode. Solos by the first chair oboe, clarinet and flute stood out even among the all-around superb instrumental work.

The Symphony No. 6 in B minor (“Pathetique”) was Tchaikovsky’s final completed orchestral work. Replete with the melodic felicity, tempestuous climactic outbursts and Russian angst that characterized Tchaikovsky’s scores, the symphony is tempting to overplay. A lot of conductors and ensembles take the bait, emphasizing ballistics over structural flow and thematic subtlety.

Not Welser-Möst, who led a performance that was taut without being rushed and lustrous while artfully contoured. The initial bassoon solo unfolded in long-limbed, spacious lines and the big romantic theme radiated urgency. Taken at a fleet clip, the Allegro non troppo had weight and impact while avoiding the coarseness of many less pristine traversals.

The Allegro con grazia resounded in bright and balletic strokes while the martial Allegro molto vivace was crisply executed — Welser-Möst astutely holding back the ensemble’s full firepower for the latter movement’s final reprise. The first bars of the closing Adagio lamentoso felt like a descent from frenzied joy to tragedy and despair: Rich string textures evoked poignancy, emotional intensity and sadness. The concluding soft bass phrases were articulated with finesse and a sense of finality.

The concert’s only hitch was an audience that insisted on applauding after every movement, breaking the musical spell. Even when Welser-Möst went straight into Tchaikivsky’s mournful Adagio lamentoso, without pause, concertgoers clapped over the music. The Cleveland Orchestra’s pre-pandemic Miami audiences were so respectful and mild mannered, they would hold their applause even in moments that practically invited it — as when vocal soloists walked on between movements of a Mahler symphony. Perhaps some admonition needs to be included in the program, or an announcement made, to discourage clapping until a score concludes.

In a pre-concert prelude presentation, Cleveland Orchestra violinist Zhan Shu gave a graceful, stylish reading of Schubert’s Violin Sonatina No. 1 in D Major, ably accompanied by pianist Carolyn Gadiel Warner. Cellist David Alan Harrell distilled the spirit of “nuevo tango” in a lively arrangement by pianist Warner of Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango,” a delightful musical aperitif.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami and 8 p.m. Monday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in Bernd Richard Deutsch’s Intensity, Respighi’s Roman Festivals and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Lisa Batiashvilli 8 p.m. January 27 and 28 at the Arsht Center in Miami.,

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Möst get a boisterous Miami welcome back”

  1. Posted Jan 22, 2023 at 12:36 pm by Dawn Marar

    Thank you for this informative review, which I read after Saturday evening’s performance.

    The worst audience clapping on Saturday occurred before the conductor lowered the baton! Perhaps the pre-show can include a simple ‘reminder’ of when it is appropriate to clap during the main program. I am no expert and would appreciate such advice.

    I suppose it could be written in the program notes, but that’s really violating protocol—isn’t it?

  2. Posted Jan 28, 2023 at 9:10 am by G B Norman

    I came down from Chicago for the Saturday performance. As always, I’m treated “like family” when I get invited to their post-concert reception where I got to meet Franz.

    Now on the applause, glad to see your reviewer take note, but on Saturday, after the Schubert #8 First Movement, someone yells “Bravo”.

    Now, all major orchestras must reach out to Millennials and the various “Gen—“.
    Problem is how can venues tactfully educate classical concert patrons that the “house rules” differ from those at, say, a rock concert?


  3. Posted Jan 30, 2023 at 9:13 pm by Isabel Trautwein

    Thank you for this kind review. I am a musician in the Cleveland orchestra and applause between movements really doesn’t bother me at all, nor many of my colleagues. We are so happy to see full halls of music lovers again! Please go to many concerts and clap heartily if you liked the music!

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