The Cleveland Orchestra Let It Rip at Last Night's Celebration of Sibelius, Knussen

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click to enlarge Conductor Susanna Malkki - Photo by Simon Fowler
Photo by Simon Fowler
Conductor Susanna Malkki
The cold didn't bother anyone inside Severance Hall during last night's performance of mainly Jean Sibelius-penned works. Yet, on that snowy evening in Cleveland we were transported to the tundras of Finland right from the start.

Under the capable baton of Susanna Mälkki (chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic) the velvety notes of Sibelius’ fairy tale-themed “En Saga” eased the audience into the concert, which was soon to become far more wild.

Near the beginning, the string sections did seem to be a little off from one another, but quickly found the right footing. Yes, the work had plenty of levels and layers and moments when the orchestra let the fortissimos ring, but it was truly a study in quietness. The best parts come when Mälkki took it down so low you had to almost lean in to hear — the instrumentalists never letting on how difficult it is to make those notes sound whole and pure. Viola solo lines, expertly executed by first assistant principal Lynne Ramsey, handed off to various instruments throughout also moved the work along beautifully.

Next up was Canadian/American soloist Leila Josefowicz taking on the Violin Concerto by Oliver Knussen (who passed away in 2018). The work was a highwire act with not a ton of obvious melodies strung throughout. At times the piece, composed in this century, was strange and challenging.

As Josefowicz told the Washington Post when speaking about the piece, which she has played with dozens of orchestras across the globe, and other modern works is that it is alright to be challenged.

"Administrations, orchestras, audiences. If I choose a new work, I hope they would think there's something interesting about this that I would like them to hear,” she said. “It doesn't mean everybody's going to love it, but that they find it interesting in some way or get something different out of it. Even if it's something as simple as, I heard a new sound tonight. Or I got a new almost tactile feeling from this certain chord. You can even dislike it, and dislike it a lot, and that's a reaction.”

That is to say it is possible to see the insane talent a musician possess while still thinking that a certain piece isn’t for you. Josefowicz, a former child prodigy who now has made it her life mission to bring new and fresh works to orchestra halls everywhere, made the case for Knussen’s work last night, stomping and banging her head for emphasis after treacherous, noodly passages. The choices made to eliminate vibrato at times (perhaps in the score itself?) was fun to watch. All three movements seamlessly moved into one another, making no time for the mind to wander, while the orchestra just added a little color.

The second half of the concert brought out the big guns of Sibelius’ "Symphony No. 1."

The first movement boldly begins with quiet timpani that falls away into a clarinet solo (as played by the incomparable Afendi Yusuf), and the orchestra was more than up to the task. Sweeping themes rolled along like waves throughout, with Mälkki leading the charge with her arms slicing through the air. The work is an ode to Finland. It’s full of romance and dancing melodies. And the instrumentalists let it rip, digging into the piece’s back and forth between light and dark. The third movement especially soared, with its quickened pace and joyful demeanor.

Sibelius, master of quiet, chose to end the fourth movement with loud chords until … wait for it … small melodic whispers and then nothingness. And as played by the Cleveland Orchestra, the final moments were pure wonder.

Sandwiched between two nights of crowd-pleasing Amadeus concert screenings, the audience was treated to something far more nuanced with last night’s musical lineup (which was also heard Thursday). And for those willing to take the journey, the rewards were quite high.

Find all upcoming Cleveland Orchestra concert information right here.

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