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S & H International Concert Review

Dalbavie, Messiaen, Ravel, Bartok, Mitsuko Uchida, piano, Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joseph Flummerfelt, Conductor, The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 11, 2004 (BH)

Dalbavie: Concertate il suono (2000) (New York premiere)
Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques (1955-56)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31)
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 (1927)


Perhaps I should just bite the bullet and move to Cleveland. It would be hard to find fault with almost anything in this unusually imaginative and superbly played concert, the first of two nights by this powerhouse of an orchestra with an equal powerhouse, almost 80 years old, at the helm.

One of the French spectralists, Marc-André Dalbavie is a young composer aiming high, and in the pieces Iíve heard, including this one, he does hit the mark. Inspired by Corelli and Bach, Concertate il suono was completed in 2000 for the Cleveland Orchestra, which played it here with almost supernatural confidence. With the onstage forces augmented by small groups and single players scattered around the hall, the work begins with a waterfall of softly descending open fifths, but quickly transforms into buzzing, nervous activity with tremolos coursing through the entire ensemble. Near the close, the open-fifths motif returns in a different guise, before the piece concludes with a single unexpected plucked note. In this case, it was difficult to separate the work itself from the absolutely virtuosic performance; if nothing else, one could simply admire the sleek Cleveland machinery working overtime.

Having not heard Mitsuko Uchida recently, I was glad to hear her in two relatively dissimilar works. The Ravel was one of the best performances Iíve heard, but it was the underplayed Messiaen that made the most indelible impression, managing to be both spare and florid at the same time in depicting some 48 different birds. To my ears, these are not particularly innocuous, pleasant birds, waiting patiently in the background to be noticed. These are wild, brazenly sensuous and insistent creatures, each wanting to be a peacock and not shy about saying it. In a highly alert performance, Uchida, Boulez and the musicians seemed almost perfectly synchronized. As the piece treads to its conclusion, Boulez coaxed the stark final chords with calm understatement, and the Cleveland playersí tone could not have been more beautifully precise.

The Ravel was beautifully proportioned, and if a friend confessed that she longed for Argerichís frenzy, Uchidaís sense of balance seemed just right. In a grateful move during the curtain calls, Boulez recognized Lisa Wellbaum on harp and Felix Kraus on English horn who also astonished as much as Uchida.

I donít see why the Bartók, one of his masterpieces, isnít performed more often. Perhaps the story itself is just too weird, even for 21st-century audiences steeped in weirdness. Similar to Richard Straussí Salome, Bartók couples some of his most inspired music to a story that is hideous, uncomfortably lurid and just flat-out strange. Or perhaps the ending, coming after so much hurtling drama can perhaps seem anticlimactic: the piece sort of lurches to a halt, as if after such frenzy all one can do is expire in exhaustion. The opening, not to mention the central Chase scene with its intense fugue, are some of the most viscerally exciting passages Bartók wrote, and elsewhere the piece vacillates between eerie, tense quietness and swarms of notes that pelt the listener like hard rain. Bartók sometimes uses his huge forces sparingly, such as near the end when "the body of the Mandarin begins to glow with a greenish-blue light" and the chorus makes its chilling entrance. With the huge orchestra and chorus stretched across the stage, just watching the musicians was a marvel in itself, and Boulezí gestures Ė as spare as an Ad Reinhardt painting Ė made audible every square inch of Bartókís tense, slithering canvas.

What more can be said about the Cleveland Orchestra, a group that probably deserves to be listed with the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore as one of our national treasures? The horns outdid themselves, both in the Messiaen and the Bartók, and the percussion section deserves singular praise in the latter. It might not seem like a single, lonely triangle would have much dynamic range, but somehow here the percussionist playing it achieved more suave volume levels than most orchestras can imagine. A good number of friends think this is not only the finest orchestra in the United States, but in the world, and certainly from the way they were playing last night, Iíd be hard-pressed to disagree.

Bruce Hodges




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