By Daniel Hathaway
CLEVELAND – Strange bedfellows made for an intriguing program at Severance Hall on May 1 as guest conductor David Robertson led the Cleveland Orchestra in an exuberant tone poem by Christopher Rouse; the premiere of a concerto by Gabriela Lena Frank commissioned by the orchestra for principal piccolo Mary Kay Fink; and the Mozart Requiem with soloists and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco.
After Fink and the orchestra approached several other composers – who declined, citing work load – Frank agreed to craft a 15-minute tone poem for the rare combination of solo piccolo and orchestra. The finished work, Will-o’-the-Wisp, adds impressively to the relatively small piccolo repertoire, which includes works by Vivaldi and Bruce Broughton that Fink has previously played with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Will-o’-the-Wisp may feature the smallest instrument in the ensemble, but it imbeds the soloist in a large orchestra of strings and woodwinds with lots of percussion. Three marimbas and a xylophone stretched the full width of the stage behind the winds, and suspended cymbal, triangle, woodblock, snare drum, piano, and celesta filled out the equipment list.
All of those mallet instruments proved to be essential to the ethos of the piece. The composer notes that her works have been influenced by Latin and indigenous music (her mother is Peruvian) and by her “fancifully personalized re-interpretations of myths.” Will-o’-the-Wisp itself was inspired by her “vague recollections of a picture book from the public library about a benign yet enigmatic flickering light that danced to a simple ‘humble song, song humble’ before enticing lost travelers ever deeper into a weirdly unsettling forest.”
That mood was set at the beginning as harp and spooky double bass harmonics introduced a mysterious violin solo. The piccolo entered the scene, playing arresting motives and exotic, up-and-down scales, then trilling in dialogue with the solo violin. Parallel chords in winds and strings were answered by the mallet instruments. Angular rhythms and a shrill piccolo passage led to a dance-like episode that grew in intensity and was crowned by an outburst from the piano.
Animated figures and catchy melodic motives alternated with smears of color and chattering bow effects from the strings. A slow cadenza built in intensity through repetitive figures over a surging undercurrent in the strings, then subsided into a gauzy haze and a contrasting piccolo episode in the low register. The trilling duet between piccolo and solo violin returned and the concerto ended magically with a whisper of suspended cymbal.
Frank’s skill as a composer and orchestrator and Fink’s wonderful command of her instrument produced a premiere as lustrous as the soloist’s sparkling blue gown. Like the Will-o’-the-Wisp itself, the tone poem left impressions both memorable and evanescent, and the work made a strong case for the piccolo as an expressive solo instrument. Robertson led a lucid yet atmospheric first reading full of vibrant detail.
The evening began with Rouse’s Rapture. Written on commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2000, the work departs from the composer’s frequent themes of grief and despair and “inhabits a world devoid of darkness.”
Instead, the world of Rapture is drenched in color drawn from the palette of a huge orchestra. The piece began in much the same way as the Frank concerto, with whispers from harp and – this time – drums. Then, ornate wind solos began a vast and panoramic crescendo to the work’s exultant climax some ten minutes later.
Along the way, tempos quickened and stunning outbreaks from the brass and two timpanists hastened the piece along to a final, long chord, on which the strings were seen vigorously free-bowing to produce as much sound as physically possible. At the end, Robertson waded through the orchestra acknowledging multiple soloists.
After intermission, the chorus and soloists Jessica Rivera, Elizabeth DeShong, Garrett Sorenson, and John Relyea joined the orchestra for the traditional Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem. Though several later hands have offered their own solutions to filling out the blank spots the composer left at his death (including the Amen fugue Mozart intended as the conclusion to the Dies irae), the Süssmayr version is its own kind of classic by now, and whatever flaws it contains have become mere beauty marks on a masterpiece.
Robertson led a brisk performance but still found time to linger over the Requiem’s most beautiful passages. The four soloists, though remarkably different in individual vocal timbre, combined to make a focused quartet – the mode in which they were most often heard. Trombonist Richard Stout made the Tuba mirum sound quite inviting.
But the star of the Requiem was the chorus – magnificent in tone, balance, and diction whether declaiming judgment or proffering solace. At the end, a sports stadium roar went up from the audience when Porco gave them a bow.
As a postscript, this was a big night for the Oberlin Conservatory, which counts Rouse, Fink, and DeShong among its graduates – just to mention those whose names were boldfaced in the program book.
Note: This program will be repeated on May 3 and May 4. For details, click here. The May 3 concert will be streamed live on WCLV, Cleveland’s classical radio station, starting at 8 p.m. eastern time. Click here.
Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.