Prior to Monday, I had never heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform in concert. Like most classical enthusiasts I have enough recordings of the orchestra to get a sense of the orchestra's abilities. So, when I stepped into the Kennedy Center and began the requisite milling about, I was mentally ready to hear one of America's best orchestras (Time called them in 1994 the "Best Band in the Land").
The concert featured an odd mix of the old and the new with a Romantic war horse thrown in for good measure. The Clevelanders began with a crystalline performance of Mozart's (sometime let me tell you about a run in I had with ol' Leopold's tombstone) 28th Symphony. Welser-Most pushed the orchestra, drawing out a brisk and enjoyable performance. The symphony wasn't weighed down with heavy orchestral sound.
The orchestra moved to John Adams' Guide to Strange Places. As I mentioned before, my clarity and opinion may be clouded because of the throbbing headache. I didn't like it then and on reflection, I still don't like the piece. The orchestra did nothing wrong. In fact they played very well. The exotic and ever changing sound configurations were advantaged by the orchestra's skill as an ensemble. What bothered me then, and still bothers me now is that the piece's aimlessness and length (it stayed around about five minutes too long for my taste). As I look back on it now, I also didn't feel like I was hearing anything new. As much as I enjoyed Fearful Symmetries, Dharma at Big Sur, Shaker Loops, Lollapalooza, Century Rolls and the Proms broadcast of his Dr. Atomic Symphony I don't know how durable his music will be over the long haul.
Inspired by a family outing in France, I can say that Adams presents a "journey" that evolves organically if a bit predictably. I will say this, I am consistently impressed at Adams ability to organically develop countless often divergent ideas.
After intermission, where copious amounts of water helped quell my headache, it was back to my seat to hear the orchestra tackle Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. I have said before, that I have been, on occasion, partial to over-emotional interpretations of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies. Welser-Most's take while not weepy was still highly enjoyable.
This was the first time I read in program notes that Tchaikovsky had intended his symphony to be about life. "The ultimate essence of the plan of the symphony is LIFE." Viewing the work this way, Welser-Most's controlled approach to the piece worked. Rather than occupying the same space as the music, feeling it intensely, and conveying this intense feeling to the audience he kept his distance, sculpting the music and allowing the music to emerge naturally. Even the famous outburst before the development section, was less violent. Like life, the symphony came and went, the quiet and energetic, emotional and artificial growing out of and depending on each other.
Peerless playing aside, the evening felt disjointed and themeless. The commonality among the pieces came from their differences not their similarities, historical or musical connections. I am happy I went, but can't help thinking that Welser-Most and the "Best Band in the Land" missed an opportunity at their Kennedy Center stop.