CLEVELAND, Ohio – Consider the Cleveland Orchestra’s American deficit reduced. After a heavily American subscription season opener, the group Saturday followed up with a gala stocked with even more of the same.
What an invigorating twist it was. No offense to Beethoven, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was also on the program, but Harbison, Copland, and Bernstein were nothing if not welcome and overdue breaths of fresh air on a night that generated $1.1 million for the orchestra’s educational initiatives.
Start with Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra,” a short dance sequence from a later opera. True to its name, the score saw the orchestra in big band mode, belting out a catchy, lilting tune with saxophone, trumpets, and drum-set. Even director Franz Welser-Most seemed to enjoy the frolic in an exotic musical language.
Conductor and orchestra also seemed fully attuned to Copland’s Suite from “Billy the Kid.” Everywhere in the score, from its evocations of wide-open landscapes to the Mexican Dance and percussive gun battle scenes, both parties delivered vigorous, fully-engaged performances. Particularly savory was the expressive solo by principal trumpet Michael Sachs in “Prairie Night (Card Game).”
Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture, by contrast, is a perennial Cleveland favorite, and reappeared Saturday as an encore. That this orchestra can do just about anything was clear from a blazing, truly virtuoso performance.
Noteworthy as the musical selections were, the star of the night was pianist Emanuel Ax, who joined the orchestra for a sparkling account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. A work Ax and Welser-Most have surely played 1,000 times received Saturday at Severance Hall another sweet, insightful reading.
This one stood out for its contrast, for its gentle tug-of-war between playful or fiery zeal and probing, supple elegance. Muscle and effervescence, along with animated support by the orchestra, defined the Allegro and Rondo, while in the Adagio, Ax spun out his tender lines with wondrous, bell-like clarity.
More of the latter was also what made his encore a treat. Coming from Ax, “In the Evening” from Schumann’s “Fantasy Pieces” Op. 12 served as the perfect nightcap, a fond, tender farewell.