Cleveland Orchestra: Franz celebrates his 50th at Blossom with Debussy, Schubert & Strauss (August 8)

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Roger Mastroianni, The Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst at Blossom

If the Edinburgh, Grafenegg, Merano, Lucerne or Stresa festivals don’t figure in your travel plans for the next two weeks, tickets to Blossom last weekend could have been the next best thing, as Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra treated large pavilion and lawn crowds to a preview of most of their tour repertory. In fact, if you have free tickets to the Bruckner 8 taping next Wednesday and Thursday at Severance Hall, you will have heard virtually everything but Toshio Kosokawa’s Woven Dreams (scheduled for its first performance in Lucerne on August 28), for which Cleveland audiences will have to wait until January. Judging from Sunday evening’s impressive performances of music by Debussy, Schubert and Richard Strauss, those European audiences have a fine experience waiting for them.

Principal flutist Joshua Smith was eloquently languid and deeply expressive in the opening work, a finely paced version of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun featuring luxuriant string playing and lovely solo work from English hornist Robert Walters.

Franz Schubert’s fourth symphony (‘Tragic’) belongs to the early, six-symphony group which pays homage to models by Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven while its lyric melodicism sings unmistakably in the composer’s own voice. Written when Schubert was only 19 (and premiered some twenty years after his death in 1928), much of No. 4 is written, unusually, in a minor key. While the symphony makes some gestures in the direction of the tragic (the composer himself gave the piece its subtitle), it’s a mood Schubert continuously seems eager to escape — both of the outside movements end decisively in C major. The second movement Andante is rondo-like, alternating a simple, lyric tune with semi-stormy passages in related keys. The Minuet surprises the ear with attention-riveting cross rhythms. The Orchestra delivered a clean, expressive and well-articulated performance.

Oddly, Schubert’s fourth was first performed by The Cleveland Orchestra only in 1963 under Robert Shaw, and Franz’s reading of the work this weekend (the third in the TCO’s history) marks the first time it has been conducted here by a Cleveland Orchestra music director.

After intermission, the rest of the evening belonged to Richard Strauss’ wonderfully exuberant and unabashedly autobiographical Ein Heldenleben. Presumably his valedictory to the era of the tone poem (he tosses themes from Don Juan, Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote and Macbeth into the texture from time to time), ‘A Hero’s Life’, according to Norman Del Mar, takes the shape of a huge Sonata Allegro movement with contrasting subjects separated by transitional material, development, recapitulation and coda. The general impression is movie music on a scale of virtuosity and color to which Hollywood has never managed to aspire.

Sharing the stage with the resident Blossom locusts who sang lustily through pauses and rests, the members of the Orchestra’s expanded brass section were the true heroes on Sunday evening, producing robust sonorities of burnished power. Three offstage trumpets effectively set up the thrillingly noisy “Battlefield” movement. The chatteringly ascerbic woodwinds graphically portrayed the natterings of the Hero’s critics — musical and otherwise — in “The Hero’s Adversaries”. Concertmaster William Preucil contributed an eloquent and wide-ranging series of violinistic caricatures to “The Hero’s Companion” and to the final “Hero’s Withdrawal from the World” movement, where he was joined by the mellifluous principal hornist Richard King.

After an enthusiastic ovation, an outsized bouquet of flowers suddenly appeared as the Orchestra rose to salute Franz Welser-Möst with a 50th birthday serenade, followed by two volleys of balloons dropped from the ceiling of the pavilion. Regifting the audience, Franz and the Orchestra played a rare encore, “Dreaming by the Fireside” from Strauss’ opera Intermezzo, an understated and orchestrally glorious finale to a beautiful evening at Blossom.