January 23, 2017

They’re Back, Baby: Cleveland Orchestra Fills in for CSO at Symphony Center

Director Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra concluded their Midwest tour on Saturday night with performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 at Symphony Center. It has been 15 years since the Cleveland Orchestra last came to Chicago and, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) on tour in Europe, it was an ideal time for the Cleveland Orchestra to return.

While prepared for the night’s music, it was clear that the musicians had some trouble adjusting to their new environment. It is not often you get to see a few musicians in tuxedos struggling to find an usher near the bathroom to lead them backstage. However, though the Clevelanders may have felt somewhat uneasy in the hall, any signs of discomfort dissipated when Welser-Möst lifted his baton to signal the first notes of the Beethoven.

Beethoven’s Eighth is among his many underrated pieces. It has an unfortunate placement, stuck between his prominent Seventh and legendary Ninth. The first three movements of the piece were played to the books. The piece sounded structured and dignified as if it were made for a Viennese ballroom soirée. It was during the fourth movement that the audience could recognize the conspicuously Beethovenian qualities of the piece: competing string sections, abrupt cessations after rising tempos only to build up once more. It was then that the Cleveland Orchestra began to demonstrate their prowess.

It was, however, the Sibelius that most fully showcased the orchestra’s skill. In comparison to the ordered Eighth, Sibelius’s music is much more fervent. It is often organized in waves: moderate and restful violins will give way to a complete swelling of the orchestra, where most of the instruments unite to create a short, impassioned sound. When I listen to Sibelius, I often feel as though I am listening to a body in communication with itself. Each section not only carries a certain sound, but also emotions which battle with the sections. The Cleveland Orchestra brought great fervor to their performance; each melody, while ardent, was also calculated. The dexterous clarinetists and flutists of the Cleveland Orchestra carried the final movement, their gentle, tranquil sounds leading the strings to a majestic finish.

The applause was so thunderous that Welser-Möst was compelled to give an encore—Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture. It was an interpretation that confirmed what was already evident: this is indeed a world-class orchestra. The encore was met exuberantly; the man sitting in front of me took to his feet so quickly he nearly propelled himself over the balcony. I can only hope that the Cleveland Orchestra does not wait another 15 years to return back to Chicago.