The Organ’s Beauty Sparkles in a Refreshing Program of Copland, Paulus and Tchaikovsky

Thank goodness for Giancarlo Guerrero, whose Cleveland appearances are among the dwindling reasons to keep going to the orchestra.

On Friday evening at Severance Hall, Guerrero led a program consisting of Aaron Copland’s “El Salón México,” Stephen Paulus’ “Grand Concerto” for organ and orchestra, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

I briefly met Paulus before the world premiere of his third violin concerto in 2012. He had a hard time explaining the technical details of his music. I remember being disappointed as a music student with no natural talent, hungry for musical facts I assumed would eventually help me write great music.

Paulus struck me as one of those remarkable people who just “got it” and didn’t feel any need to reverse-engineer his music for my benefit. But it wasn’t like the affected aloofness younger composers use to dodge admitting they don’t understand what they’ve written. Maybe Paulus, with his polite Minnesota upbringing, found the idea of pontificating about his own work sleazy and embarrassing. In any case, Paulus’ music shows a very clear and detailed thought process.

The pairing of Copland and Paulus in the first half revealed several similarities between the two composers. They’re both technically brilliant orchestrators. Neither of them shies away from using musical conventions for their own unique purposes. Gentle and triumphant moods are set in major keys. Minor keys are reserved for conflict, as in the climax of the organ concerto’s second movement. Chords playfully meander in lockstep to create fleeting modal shifts that perk up the ears. Both composers expertly walk the dangerously thin line between cloying and expressive. And they both have this remarkable way of writing fast music that still sounds slow; the contrasting rhythmic section of the organ concerto’s second movement sounds a little bit like the gun showdown in “Billy the Kid.”

Guerrero and Jacobs clearly work well together. (They collaborated last year on a fantastic recording of Michael Daugherty’s “Once Upon a Castle” for the Naxos label.) The orchestra and Jacobs were in perfect sync throughout, which is no small feat for an instrument that requires its handler to sit dozens of feet away from the pipes.

Jacobs was a dazzling soloist. From the hymn-like opening to the driving moto perpetuo of the final movement, there was a level of extra care and total commitment that musicians typically reserve for more canonical works. Jacobs describes himself as a “fierce advocate of new music,” and perhaps new music has no better advocate than Jacobs, who brought ferocity, passion and precision to Friday’s performance. The theatrical back-and-forth between the percussion section and the organ pedals in the last movement was a real show-stopper. The seemingly endless final chord of the piece, with roaring organ and full orchestra, was still ringing when the audience leapt to its feet.

Paulus’ concerto followed a disappointingly clinical reading of Copland’s “El Salón Mexico.” Overall, the performance was precise to a fault. The orchestra sped up and slowed down in perfect sync. Complex rhythms were perfectly executed at the expense of the raucous, earthy abandon the piece requires. Acting concertmaster Peter Otto briefly let down his hair for his solos, complete with sensuously warbling Latin vibrato. The piano, which primarily doubles the strings for color, was too prominent from where I sat and occasionally rushed ahead of the group. Daniel McKelway’s clarinet solos got a few chuckles with their waggish smears.

Tchaikovsky, the de facto headliner of the evening, was set off by an unexpectedly tame and rounded delivery of the famous horn introduction. It sounded less like the thunderous knocking of fate and more like the timid rapping of the milk man. Elsewhere, the various sections of the orchestra never really blended, as if they were playing in perfect sync from different rooms. The woodwind interjections in the first movement’s second theme got off to a sloppy start as some notes didn’t speak. The first movement was so slow that the normally unassailable forward momentum of the music, propelled by offbeat phrases and lilting rhythms, ground to a disappointing halt. If the slower tempo was an attempt to highlight the mad dash that caps off the symphony, it didn’t quite work.

The task of finding new meaning in familiar material — especially in an orchestra whose doddering management circulates standard repertoire with tasteless frequency — is admittedly difficult. Tchaikovsky’s well-worn symphonies are probably best left alone. The detached articulation of the winding countermelody in the second movement was a novel but distracting touch. Frank Rosenwein’s solos were refreshingly direct and full of expression. The decision to have the strings pick up their bows near the end of the third movement set up a satisfying, jolting blast in the fourth movement.
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