Sunday, March 08, 2009

Let's Hear It For Cleveland

Saturday evening we had the great pleasure and privilege of watching and listening as conductor Kurt Masur whipped the Cleveland Orchestra into as spirited a rendition of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as I have ever heard.

The Cleveland is in the midst of its winter residency in Miami, an annual treat that gives us some consolation over our loss of the Florida Philharmonic, which did not survive long enough to move into the new home we built for them. Sitting through this all-Beethoven program I could not help recalling the summer Beethoven festivals that director James Judd used to lavish on us. I'll certainly never forget the finale of that performance of the Ninth that caused the audience to leap to its feet and utter a sound like the crowd at a basketball game whose team had just come from behind to win with a three-point shot at the buzzer.

But that was then. Now we have to be content with a few performances per year of a world class orchestra appearing with a variety of guest conductors. The German-born Masur, now past 80, may have been among the most elderly people in the room, but he was the only one of us who stood on his feet though the whole performance, and showed himself still full of energy and the ability to convey it to us through the orchestra.

First for a warmup was the Leonore Overture No. 3, which demonstrated old Ludwig's marvelous blending of orchestral textures and the Cleveland's stellar ability to bring them out -- including the use of an off-stage trumpet as a special effect for the fanfare that appears in a couple of places.

Then Canadian pianist Louis Lortie turned in a slick performance of the First Piano Concerto, full of liquid arpeggios and clear percussion. This first foray into a keyboard concerto by Beethoven is interesting because the first two movements -- especially the gentle and lyrical second -- could easily be mistaken for Mozart. But then the third begins and there's no doubt we're in the hands of someone new. There is even a playful jazzy figure perhaps not heard again until the time of Gershwin or Latin American dance music.

And finally the Seventh Symphony. What can I say? It's only the second time I've heard it live (the first was by the still-existing Miami Symphony, which did a fine job and really brought out the strong bass lines), but I've heard many other recorded performances. My recent favorite was by the Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vanska conducting, and they are said to be doing some of the best Beethoven right now. What I liked about Vanska's interpretation was the way they got the rhythm and tempo right in the final movement, which can easily turn stodgy if taken too slowly.

Well, slowness was no problem for Masur and the Cleveland. From the downbeat they were off to the races, running lickety split for the finish line. The effect was electric, and reminded me that one contemporary critic of Beethoven complained that his music "exceeded the range of the human nervous system." Well of course it did -- they'd never heard anything like that before.

Lucky for us, two hundred years later we can hear it still.

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