Friday, October 12, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall

Posted By on Fri, Oct 12, 2012 at 12:33 PM

William Preucil
  • William Preucil

Composer Stephen Paulus was beaming when he took the stage at Severance Hall last night, reflecting both the audience’s reaction to his newest work, Violin Concerto No. 3, and a fine world premiere of the piece by Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil.

Paulus and Preucil have collaborated on a dozen of the composer’s works since 1985, when Paulus was asked to write a violin concerto (his first) for Preucil, who was then concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So it was no surprise that Preucil handled Concerto No. 3 with apparent ease and confidence, wringing powerful emotional expression out of disparate solo parts. The violinist’s style — fluid, yet pronounced — was a good fit for a straightforward neoclassical work that blended elements of Paulus’s signature melodic and aggressive techniques.

A pleasant and occasionally engaging piece, the concerto was perhaps most notable for not being a soloist showcase. The violinist gets only short, scattered outbursts in the first movement, warms up with some lyrical passages in the second, and finally gets a chance to stretch out in the third. Technically, the violin parts are not very demanding. And it was puzzling to see an extended stretch of pizzicato in the third movement, hardly the stuff of virtuoso playing.

Giancarlo Guerrero
  • Giancarlo Guerrero

But Preucil’s dignified bearing belies the warmth and tenderness he drew out of his instrument, even as the full orchestra was building to what Paulus describes as “hammer blows.” That was characteristic of a piece with considerable drama, despite Paulus’s stated intention in the program notes of using the orchestra in a “lean manner” so as to leave plenty of acoustic room for the violinist. But Preucil’s soulful sound provided a perfect counterbalance, and afterward he and Paulus were taking bows in tandem to shouts of “Bravo!”

Manning the podium was Latin maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor in its Miami residency. Guerrero seems almost preternaturally buoyant, smiling as he cues players with an arch of his eyebrow or lift of a little finger. His most conspicuous trait may be his ability to conduct from memory; he did not use a score for the opening piece, Stravinsky’s 1947 suite from his ballet Pétrouchka, or the finale, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole.

Guerrero’s Stravinsky was soft, almost sweet at times — not how one typically thinks of the fiery Russian. Since it was being played by the Cleveland Orchestra, it sounded competent and polished, at times even riveting. But there was no electricity in the music, and not much of the sense of discovery that characterizes the best interpretations of Stravinsky. Guerrero was at his finest in the second and third movements, when he had an opportunity to create contrasting light and dark colors, and conjure up captivating tones. And the shimmering effect he created in the strings was mesmerizing.

Not surprisingly, Guerrero seemed more at home with the Spanish flavors of Ravel’s rhapsody. The piece is all about atmospherics, which the conductor did a wonderful job of evoking, from gauzy textures in the strings to full-blooded rhythms coursing through the full orchestra. It would be easy to run hard and fast with this music, but Guerrero showed intelligence and restraint in balancing precise bursts of percussion with soft, flowing melodies, exploring the subtleties and contrasts in the music. The final movement finished with a sharp crackle missing from the opener, putting a satisfying punctuation point on the evening.

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