Schubert and Mahler @ Severance Hall 2/9/12
Reviewed by Laura Kennelly
It was obvious that something was wrong when Cleveland Orchestra manager Gary Hansen walked onstage before the concert that was to have featured Pierre Boulez, the iconic French conductor who makes modern music make sense. Boulez, on the advice of his ophthalmologist, would not be able to conduct at all — not even the previously announced reduction to just the first half. Instead Robert Porco, director of Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, stepped in to conduct three rarely-heard (and gorgeous) Franz Schubert songs for men’s choir and David Robertson, who had already agreed to act as a last-minute substitute for the second part of the evening, conducted the orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5” (instead of “Symphony No. 7” which was to have been led by Boulez).
And guess what? None of that mattered at all, even though you’d think it might have. From where I sat in the upper part of the balcony everything sounded clear and gorgeous, especially the Schubert which floated up in beautiful fluffy harmonic clouds (no, really, they did). These rarely heard works were new to me (“Hymn to the Holy Spirit,” “Night Song in the Forest,” and “Song of the Spirits over the Waters”). I’d love to hear them again and again. They exemplify the best of a nineteenth-century German romanticism that sought the ephemeral, eternal in the natural world.
The Mahler (you know it’s No. 5 because it begins with a trumpet solo) celebrates the expressive qualities of the brass instruments in particular. The orchestra’s brass sections honored that with fine, controlled performance, from the opening trumpet solo to long French horn riffs. (Actually I think it’s possible that a couple of the instrumentalists sitting directly in front of the horns might have been discreetly using earplugs to preserve their hearing. Another plus for sitting up high is that every move on stage may be seen.) Robertson’s conducting gave the orchestra time to breathe and expand on certain passages and despite the lack of rehearsal time, things worked rather well the first night. The Adagietto (you’ll recognize it) is perhaps Mahler’s most famous piece and the orchestra created a leisurely and moving meditation.
My vertiginous perch reminded me that Cleveland’s Severance Hall is one of the finest places ever to listen to music — of any sort, from any era — and that even when the best-laid plans don’t always pan out, good music can’t be stopped. Just ask Tracy Turnblad (or don’t).
Listening to and learning more about music has been a life-long passion. She knows there’s no better place to do that than the Cleveland area.