Cleveland Orchestra at Symphony Hall

By Anne Lovering Rounds

Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Lang Lang, piano

Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto No. 1

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8

Symphony Hall, October 11, 2002

When he conducted Brahms’s first piano concerto with pianist Glenn Gould in 1962, maestro Leonard Bernstein prefaced the performance with this question: In a concerto, who is really in control?

In that particular performance, notorious for its radical tempo interpretation on the slow end of the metronome, it was the eccentric Gould. But on Friday at Symphony Center, when the Cleveland Orchestra began the evening with Mendelssohn’s 1st piano concerto, the boss was not soloist Lang Lang. It was the dynamic, lithe Franz Welser-Möst, who is in his first season as Cleveland’s music director.

Several things might have happened to Welser-Möst and his orchestra during the course of the concerto. First, they could have been overwhelmed by the talent of such a young soloist. At 20, Lang looks no older than 16, and his technique is superb. In my own past years at the piano, my teacher used to comment—not infrequently—that my scales and parallel sixths needed to be less choppy. I envied Lang’s super-smooth arpeggios and powerful, fluid octaves; I can’t imagine I was the only one impressed. Mendelssohn is full of these magnified exercises for virtuosity, and Lang has the dexterity to make them sound effortless.

Second, Lang’s affectations at the keyboard could have divided the orchestra’s attention. During lyrical spots, he closed his eyes, hunched his shoulders, and swayed to and fro on the piano bench. He did coax a wonderful cantabile from the instrument—I thought of my teacher telling me to “sing more”—but his performance was as visual as it was aural. (A pianist like Radu Lupu, who uses little more than his wrist and forearm to achieve a similar tone, raises doubts about the real need for these gestures.) Whatever the proper physics of piano playing, it would have been easy for anyone, orchestra or audience, to be distracted by Lang’s stage presence.

But while Welser-Möst put his hands down courteously during the cadenzas, he never let Lang forget that the orchestra was more than a backup group, nor could Lang have forgotten that his conductor was more than a puppet figure. What might have turned into idol-worship was instead a performance wound tight as a clock. What could have descended to schmaltzy romanticism was a sparkling rendition of a piece meant to showcase virtuosity. The orchestra was on top of every accent and acceleration; its full presence, even during the passages where its members had rests, existed in every phrase. Welser-Möst kept Lang under his eye all the time. When Lang performed Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto with the CSO last season, he gave a rather arrogant solo encore afterwards. No such encore Friday: Welser-Möst honored this young man’s talent, but he didn’t cater to it. The result was electric.

If Lang listened to the second half of the program, devoted to Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony, he might have aged another 20 years. First performed in Moscow in 1943, the symphony is an hour long, full of the tension of the times, and requires an orchestra twice the size of Menndelssohn’s. It calls for a full percussion section, a double bassoon, three trombones, and a piccolo. All this in addition to a string section packed to the edge of the stage. In short, it’s no forum for youthful spriteliness.

From the first note to the last, the ensemble never relaxed. Shostakovich didn’t give them that luxury, and they never tried to take it. The audience may have been flagging a little by the last movement, but the musicians never did; each motion, from the tiniest piccolo note to the richest horn motif to the pizzicati and col legno of the strings, sounded deliberate and polished. Welser-Möst had kept the mannerist Lang under a strict baton, but here he demonstrated an even greater authority as a conductor. He took the raw forces of so many instruments and integrated them. He guided them through the dramatic, sudden changes in character and volume; the individual sections truly engaged in an hour-long, emotionally searing dialogue. “War is hell,” the screaming violins proclaimed. “It could be jolly,” countered the flutes. “Or glorious,” said the horns. “But no,” clanged the cymbals and the xylophone. (“Spooky,” somebody behind me whispered between movements.) Because of Welser-Möst’s clarity and energy, and the orchestra’s versatility and endurance, we heard Shostakovich turn the set of Homeric values on its head. War is hell.

The last phrase, when the violins hover, pianissimo, and the cellos have a series of syncopated quarters, was one of the most astonishing things I have ever heard in Symphony Hall. The final fermata lasted forever; the violins kept on and on, long after the cellos’ note had disappeared. Welser-Möst stretched his arms wider and wider, elongating the C major chord and its overtones. Then he froze. All eyes in the hall were watching him, and for a moment, there was complete silence. Then, slowly, Welser-Möst put his arms at his sides. He stepped down from the podium and bowed, not a scraping bow, but deep enough. It was over.

He shook the concertmaster’s hand; we applauded each individual section long and hard, with especially loud applause for the winds and the brass. Welser-Möst was called back to the stage time after time, and there was the formality of an encore, Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant Overture.” But in my head were the final cello notes of the Shostakovich. And although the choice to juxtapose Mendelssohn and Shostakovich was audacious—since it risked turning the Mendelssohn into a forgettable warm-up piece—the notes Lang had played were there, too. In two hours, the audience heard two very different, yet both convincing, expressions of human experience.

In a concerto, who’s really in control? On Friday night, it was same conductor who went on to summon up a tremendously coherent rendition of Shostakovich’s symphony from a world-class orchestra. But perhaps Leonard Bernstein should have rephrased his query. The question isn’t who is in control, but what. In Franz Wesler-Möst’s direction, the Cleveland Orchestra’s playing, and even in someone with as far to go as Lang Lang, we come away knowing that the power lies in the pages of the score itself.