MUSIC REVIEW: The Cleveland Orchestra by Lisa DeBenedictis and Tricia Hammann

The Cleveland Orchestra is one of Cleveland’s greatest gifts to the world. The orchestra’s string sound is transcendent and their attention to ensemble is always notable. Its March 23rd showed both of those endowments in an exhilarating performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. Finnish-Ukrainian conductor Dalia Stasevska led the orchestra in a program of mostly Finnish music, and also included the “Stabat Mater” by Akron-raised composer Julia Perry (1924-1979), sung by mezzo-soprano Josefina Maldonado.

The first piece on the program was “Cantus Arcticus,” a “concerto” for bird sounds and orchestra by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Rautavaara studied composition at the Sibelius Academy and would eventually reverse roles and serve as professor to many notable musicians including Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Jean Sibelius himself recommended Rautavaara to New York’s Juilliard School. The “Cantus” was a short, lush, piece written to accompany the composers’ recorded bird sounds that showed off orchestra’s luxuriant string sound to perfection.

Josefina Maldonado was soloist in Perry’s “Stabat Mater”. The Texas-born mezzo-soprano struts a range of remarkably clear, dusky low notes to glorious operatic highs, and gave a moving reading of this 1950’s work. Audiences may remember Maldonado from her stirring performance of John Adams’ “El Niño”.

Stasevska, a new mother, wielded a sense of new energy and new beginnings mirroring that of spring and the resurgence of greenery. Stasevska is married to the Finnish musician and composer Lauri Porra. Their six-month-old daughter is a direct descendent of Jean Sibelius on her father’s side; she is the composer’s great-great granddaughter.

This weekend’s performances were the opening concerts for the Cleveland’s Orchestra’s Spring Season, and it was the perfect program for this weekend on many levels: it marked the first weekend coming out of the thaw of winter, and the first weekend of longer light coming out of the darkness of daylight savings time as well as the parallels to the current depravity of war on the world stage.

These concerts marked the commanding debut of Dahlia Stasevska with the Cleveland Orchestra. Ukrainian-born Stasevska, who lives in Finland, is a vocal defender and significant fund raiser for Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion. On April 6th, she will be conducting a benefit concert in support of Ukraine at Helsinki Music Centre, with 35 students who have been displaced by the war and The Sibelius Academy Symphony. The program includes Ukrainian composer Bohdana Frolyak’s piece “Let There Be Light” in support of Ukrainian Music Education.

Sebelius’ second symphony was composed during the backdrop of similar circumstances. Completed in 1902 during Russian domination of Finland, the piece became an inspiring and affecting take on Finland’s character and culture, with expansive prowess and elegance that evokes the spirit of Finland’s forests in a land of a thousand lakes.

Acclaimed interpreter of Sibelius, Osmo Vänskä, explained the triumphant symptgomy’s significance: “The second symphony is connected with our nation’s fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual”.  On every level the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance on the 23rd lived up to Vänskä’s words.

[Written by Lisa DeBenedictis and Tricia Hammann]

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