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Classically Trained: Cleveland Orchestra has brilliant yet subdued performance in Costa Mesa

April 19, 2012|By Bradley Zint

"Oh, that was lovely." "Wow! That was amazing!"

They're two common laudatory phrases. Both designate different degrees of good.

The Cleveland Orchestra's overall performance in Costa Mesa on Tuesday night received the former from me. It was an evening in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall of technically brilliant, yet subdued playing from an otherwise strikingly fine ensemble.

The unified qualities by which the famed Ohio orchestra played are unmatched by most. The sound was crystal-clear, the balance impeccable, the sectional styles integrated to last noteworthy detail.

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Those alone usually define success.

But for an orchestra whose stellar reputation precedes it, I left the venue not feeling that unmistakable extra zing that resonates after a performance whose players, with their pages full of ledger lines, clefs, sharps and the like, transcend the music.

Cleveland was led by Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland's director since 2002. He began the evening with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, the "Scottish."

The easy-to-digest symphony was highlighted by the delicious clarinet work of principal Franklin Cohen and the clean, refined sound of his string counterparts. They all certainly cared to get the job done, and get the job done well.

But Welser-Möst didn't seem to be asking any more of them than that. There wasn't that something extra.

Yet after playing Kaija Saariaho's "Orion" — a thoroughly modern piece of starry sounds — that something extra came during the evening's finale: Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony. This was the chance, I thought, where this orchestra would pull out all the stops.

And they did, but not at the moments expected.

In the Sixth's first movement, the Largo, the playing was with as sensitive an air as can be. The orchestra played pianissimos like we wish everyone could: with such ghostly stillness that the slightest aberration might send the worst kind of ripples through it. It's a stillness that's tough to achieve.

Within such solitude was wonderfully introspective playing. Welser-Möst and his players had something to say here. They said it quietly with subdued grace.

But while the pianissimos were stellar, the fortes were not as much. There seemed to be this established ceiling the whole night through which no one dared break, even though they probably should have on the parts calling for some breaking.

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