Thursday, March 06, 2014

On Hearing the Cleveland Orchestra

The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall
I have been listening to the Cleveland Orchestra for many years. One cannot avoid it if your interest is in great music being played at the highest level. The Cleveland Orchestra has always been in the upper echelon of not only American orchestras, but on the international stage as well. However, my own orchestral roots run to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. My teacher, Wayne Barrington, was a member of the CSO from 1954 until 1964, so when I began studying with him in 1967 I felt I was connected to the Chicago traditions, the Chicago sound, and the Chicago style of orchestral playing.

When I arrived in San Antonio in 1975, taking the position of 3rd horn in the San Antonio Symphony, I found myself among enthusiastic musicians, about my age, from a range of different stylistic backgrounds. By 1976 a group of musicians was gathering regularly at my house to listen to music together. Our extracurricular music appreciation club was just about equally divided between those who had studied the Chicago style and those who came from the Cleveland tradition. Although we actively promoted our own roots, Chicago or Cleveland, we ultimately came away with deep mutual respect for both these important institutions. My record collection, at that time only beginning to grow by leaps and bounds, is now large, reflecting my varied musical interests. But at the heart of the orchestral recordings are many performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, mixed with a significant number of recordings by the Cleveland Orchestra. Both orchestras are great. They have each changed over the years and decades, while managing to maintain the highest level of excellence. To hear either orchestra, from just about any point in the stereo era, is enlightening and inspiring.

Prior to last Sunday, I had only heard the Cleveland Orchestra live one time, a concert at the Blossom Music Festival 20-something years ago. On the other hand, I've heard Chicago on tour in Austin back in the early 70s, then on three occasions at Orchestra Hall Chicago. I also had the opportunity to spend a week around the orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, around 1978 or '9. Each time hearing the CSO live has been a thrill, perhaps never more than hearing a program of Wagner, Chavez and Beethoven at Orchestra Hall in 2010. My sister Brenda and I splurged on great tickets to hear that matinee program.

When I heard the Cleveland Orchestra was going to be in Austin to play a couple of concerts as part of the 2014 Menuhin Competition, I made the mental check mark – yes, I will attend. But as the weekend of their concerts grew near, I found that one of the concerts was sold out and the other was selling fast. I feared I might miss hearing them and probably would have just let it go if not for a phone call from my friend Margaret Ayer. She also wanted to hear the orchestra's final concert Sunday night. We also wanted to see an old mutual friend, Hans Clebsch. Hans is the 3rd horn in the Cleveland; he's been there for 18 years, although it seems no more than 15 years ago that Hans was playing 4th horn to my 3rd at the Mineria Festival in Mexico City. That 15 years ago was, in fact, more like 25 years ago.

I contacted Hans to see if he could get us complimentary tickets. Negative. The tickets were all in the hands of the Menuhin Festival and the sponsoring Texas Performing Arts. I priced tickets, but found only a few seats with a $104 price tag placed on them. Out of my range. Margaret and I decided to go to the concert anyhow, enter backstage, then play it by ear. At worst, we could hear the concert from the wings of the stage. Margaret knows the concert venue very well. The Long Center is home of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, where Margaret plays 4th horn, so she was confident we could come through the backstage door. She was right. Once we were backstage we moved freely among the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra. This is not surprising. Orchestra musicians everywhere are comfortable backstage or onstage. It's being on the other side of the proscenium which often makes us nervous.

Hans Clebsch, 3rd horn in the Cleveland Orchestra
Already I was getting excited, just hanging out with the orchestra. We had walked in with Michael Sachs, the Principal Trumpet, talking musician small talk. Nice guy. We looked around backstage for Hans, but couldn't find him. We also looked for Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, another former student of Mr. Barrington, who was subbing with the orchestra that week. She normally is 3rd horn in the Minnesota Orchestra.

In the end, we got the opportunity to take a couple of vacant seats in the second row for the second half of the concert. What good fortune, for the second part of the program was Tchaikovsky's "Fifth Symphony," one of the greatest of Romantic symphonies and arguably Tchaikovsky's finest. Conducting was Giancarlo Guerrero, the Costa Rican musician who has succeeded on stages around the globe. His regular gig these days is as Music Director of the Nashville Symphony, but he works regularly with the Cleveland Orchestra as their Principal Guest Conductor. The orchestra seems to like him very much, and they should. It was amazing to watch him lead the orchestra with clarity and musicality. He was having a great time, literally dancing around the podium, at times more encouraging the orchestra than leading them. You can do that with a great orchestra and it is breathtaking when it happens, a tour de force of mutual trust.

Giancarlo Guerrero, Principal Guest Conductor
From the very first note of the Tchaikovsky, the orchestra was in fine form. We were seated no more than 20 feet from the first violins. In front and to our left were the first violins. If we looked to the right we saw the viola section. The Cleveland strings sit with the cello section between the violas and the second violins. From where we sat, we could not see the winds and the brass, though we could hear them fine. Our vantage point gave us a near perfect perspective for hearing the strings. If anything, I couldn't hear the basses as clearly as I would have liked, but they were definitely there, just a bit under-present. There is so much to praise, I don't know where to begin. I will say up front that this was one of the greatest listening experiences I have ever had. I often say that the best seat in the house is in the middle of the orchestra. I stick with that, but acknowledge that the seat I had stumbled onto last Sunday night was pretty incredible. The strings were nothing short of amazing. They played perfectly together. But even more incredibly, they phrased together. I heard nothing unmusical in the entire performance. And then there was the conductor, Guerrero. (Why didn't the San Antonio Symphony go after him when he was climbing his way up through the lower echelon of orchestras?) He danced, he encouraged, he cued and conducted with great clarity while never becoming mechanical about his craft. And he smiled! It was a smile of appreciation, the smile of a man madly in love with the place he found himself, in front of one of the world's greatest orchestra.

Both Margaret and I leaned forward ever so slightly as the second movement began. We knew the introductory measures from the strings were all just a setup for one of the most famous first horn solos ever written. Guerrero relaxed his baton, letting Principal Horn Richard King lead the orchestra. It was oh so fine, as good as it could be played. Pardon me a moment for a bit of technical talk. The Cleveland orchestra's horn section comes from a long tradition of playing Conn 8Ds. These are instruments from a famous American music instrument maker (C.G. Conn). Just about any American who plays the horn has played at one time or another on an 8D. Some are more passionate about the experience, others not so much. Suffice it to say that I become somewhat bored when I play an 8D. I much prefer the more varied sound palette of the style of horn made by Carl Geyer and his numerous disciples. That said, I have nothing at all to criticize about the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra's horn section. If I could sound like that, I would consider playing a Conn 8D again. Bravo to Richard King! He absolutely deserved the extended solo bow he got at the end of the evening.

Considering the important role Tchaikovsky played in Russian dance, it's no surprise that so much of his music dances, whether intended literally for that purpose, or not. The Third Movement of the "Fifth Symphony" is a good example. By this time Sunday night, Giancarlo Guerrero and the Cleveland Orchestra had the Long Center audience in the palm of its hand. The crowd was well behaved, suppressing its coughs despite the fact another cold front had rolled into Austin earlier in the day. The one exception was a several syllabled shout from someone at the end of the Andante Cantabile Second Movement. It was not offensive, just someone expressing his appreciation for the beauty of the moment. Onward went the orchestra, with little pause. Of course, this is nothing new to the Clevelanders. They are these days a much traveled orchestra, with a series of concerts ongoing in Miami on top of various short tours and runouts to other zip codes around the country. The month of February had been somewhat brutal. In talking to my friend Hans over brunch earlier in the day, I heard the orchestra had just finished part of a week in Miami. Earlier in the month, they had played a several city tour in Nebraska, including a stop in Lincoln. It's interesting that I just read an article declaring Lincoln, Nebraska the happiest small city in America. Perhaps they took that measurement just after the Cleveland Orchestra had been there.

Sitting second row, center at the Long Center, listening in super sound to the Cleveland Orchestra! I kept thinking what a lucky guy I was to be there. I suspect anywhere in the hall would have been satisfying, yet there wouldn't have been the same clarity of sound and stereo image. In the Third Movement the orchestra has an ongoing thread of conversation throughout. The woodwinds and brass punctuate and underscore the elegant lines of the strings, and they did it on this evening with such grace! During those countless afternoons and evenings long ago in San Antonio, listening for hours on end to the Chicago Symphony, then the Cleveland Orchestra, attention was always drawn to the Cleveland woodwind section. It is said that George Szell, the at times autocratic conductor in Cleveland for many years, would personally coach each of the principal players of the orchestra. This produced a unanimity to the orchestra's phrasing, in the 1960s perhaps most apparent in the woodwinds. I know now that our listening club of San Antonio musicians had a tendency to paint too often in primary colors, at times simply in black and white. After all, everyone knows the Chicago Symphony is the one with the world's greatest brass section, the Cleveland has the finest woodwinds and the Philadelphia the best strings. We were like a bunch of conservatory students listening through aural blinders. Thankfully, I have come well beyond this compartmentalized view of the orchestral world, and I hope all of my other friends from back in the mid-70s have done so too. Our way of listening back then was intense, and that's good. It was passionate, and that's a good thing. But it has taken time to learn the true art of music appreciation. Yes, the more knowledgeable we are about the music, the better. Rudimentary knowledge of harmony, of musical architecture, of the instruments of the orchestra enhances the listening experience. But in the end, we have to allow ourselves to be swept away. I guess it's like all of the permissions we have to agree to when installing a new app onto our phones or computers. Yes, yes, yes. You have permission to post emotions directly to my heart. You can delight my intellectual centers. Carry me away. Once we give ourselves over completely, unconditionally, the full experience of listening to music can sweep over us, knock us off our feet, send shivers down our spines, cause our hearts to palpitate and tears to flow freely. This is what music is, what it should always be. It's a complex blend of intellect and emotion. It's the past, present and future. It's MAGIC! It's not wallpaper!

Smiling statue
Xalapa, Mexico
At the Anthropology Museum in Xalapa, Mexico, a museum ranked as second only to the museum in Mexico City for the importance of its collection of pre-Columbian art, there is an entire section devoted to masks from the Blanco and Papaloapan basins, representative of the Classical period (300-900 A.D.). Every face is smiling, not just a polite and dignified Olan Mills smile, but an over the top bursting all barriers smile. Who knows what is making these faces of centuries ago smile with such unselfconscious delight, but I challenge anyone to walk into that space and not mirror what they are seeing around them.

The playing of the Cleveland Orchestra was beginning to have that same effect on me. I was smiling ear to ear, and so was the orchestra, some with a more Mona Lisa smile, while others wore their smiles more broadly as testament to their enjoyment of the moment. The conductor smiled, too, perhaps the biggest smile of all. Who wouldn't, conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, playing in the Cleveland Orchestra, sitting second row center listening to the Cleveland? To borrow a phrase from my old friend David Amram, this was “outta sight.” In the Third Movement there are many moments about which to smile. There's none of the high drama of the other movements. This is pure dance. I watched the first violins execute lines of filigreed elegance without the slightest error. The line was then carried across the front of the orchestra to the violas, often the butt of musician jokes. None of that in this great orchestra! Tchaikovsky ups the ante, allowing the violas to mirror the line of the violins, then extend it. It's perfect, so perfect that Tchaikovsky writes it again. I smiled once, I smiled again and the movement transitioned without pause into the Finale of the "Fifth Symphony."

Here was a chance for the orchestra to show its power. But it's not an edgy power, but neither is it restrained. It's just right. There's a sound to the orchestra which some say is European. I was asked what that means, but couldn't express it with words. There's a patina which burnishes the tone of the orchestra. There's a dark hue to the sound. See.....any attempt to describe this European sound seems contrived. But the truth to the statement is found through listening. It is an incredibly lustrous sound. It is balanced. It is a sunset of complex shades and colors. Long after George Szell was dead and gone, one still hears the Cleveland Orchestra referenced as Szell's orchestra. Christoph von Dohnanyi, who served as the orchestra's Music Director during the 80s and 90s, accepted this. He understood what it meant, that it reflected a tradition he was privileged to carry on. I have to admit that this was somewhat on my mind when I heard the orchestra's opening number Sunday night, Dvorak's “Carnival Overture.” The Cleveland Orchestra made a specialty of Dvorak during the Szell era. In some cases, Szell made changes to Dvorak's scores to reflect his own thoughts on the composer's intentions. When I played Dvorak's "Symphony No. 8" for the first time many years ago under the conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith, I saw first hand some of those changes. Smith had been an assistant to Szell and carried that torch to Austin, later to San Antonio, and finally to Colorado Springs. I am sure he would preface every first rehearsal of the 8th Symphony, as he did in Austin in 1972, with musical phrases drawn onto a blackboard, showing Szell's interpretation.

When I heard the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time, years ago at the Blossom Festival, the principal piece on the program was the Dvorak 8th.  I wondered at the time if they were still playing from orchestra parts showing Szell's changes. I suspected they were, for I could close my eyes then and imagine the performance being led by Szell. In truth, I don't remember who conducted the orchestra on that Summer evening. It doesn't matter. It was Szell's orchestra. As Christoph von Dohnanyi famously said: "We give a great concert...and George Szell gets a great review."

So what about today? What did I hear on Sunday night at the Long Center?
Was it Dohnanyi's orchestra? He's been gone for less than a decade. Or is it now Franz Welser-Most's orchestra? He's the current Music Director in Cleveland. Or could this even have been Giancarlo Guerrero's Cleveland Orchestra? He certainly guided the orchestra with a sure and confident hand. But in the end, I came away with the impression that the orchestra today belongs to the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra. They have taken full possession of their own ensemble and it shows. They care deeply for their orchestra and its legacy and are bound and determined to maintain the highest standards. They want their Cleveland Orchestra to be the best in the world.

Earlier in the day, sitting over brunch with Hans Clebsch, talking about his good fortune at playing with the Cleveland Orchestra, Hans mentioned Mary Kay Fink, the orchestra's piccolo player who joined the orchestra in 1988 when William Hebert, the previous piccolo player of the orchestra retired. Some years later, Ms. Fink won an audition for the piccolo position in the Chicago Symphony, but decided to turn it down, to stay put in Cleveland.

“Why would anyone turn down Chicago to come back to Cleveland?” asked Margaret. It's a fair question and also the perfect setup for Hans' reply.

“Because we are the Cleveland Orchestra.”

                                  - James Baker

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