Sprung From Canada, Critic Harvests Bounty In America’s Midwest

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Music director Jader Bignamini led the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in an all-American program.

PERSPECTIVE – On Nov. 8, U.S. authorities decided it was safe to let Canadians come into their country by car. The next day, I drove down from Toronto and crossed the border at Lewiston and continued on to Cleveland. A few days later, I attended a memorable concert by the Cleveland Orchestra, and a few days after that I was in Detroit to hear a concert by the Detroit Symphony under its new music director, Jader Bignamini. Does that mean that things are back to normal? Unfortunately not. The Canadian authorities still have regulations in place that make such a trip worrisome and, ultimately, perhaps not worth the trouble.

For the record, there was no lineup at all when I crossed at Lewiston, and immigration procedures were brief and uneventful. My first impression at stops in Buffalo and Cleveland was that precautionary health measures were somewhat casual compared to Canada. Few people seemed to be wearing masks, and there was not much social distancing. But at Severance Hall in Cleveland, the authorities were much more strict. Proof of full vaccination had to be produced at the door, and masks were required while seated and elsewhere in the building. Onstage, string players all wore masks throughout the concert, and the conductor, too, at least until he got to the podium.

Thierry Fischer stepped in to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra.

A widespread consequence of the pandemic in the music world is frequent cancellations. The concerts in Cleveland provided an example. The music director of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, was scheduled as guest conductor but was forced to cancel all his North American engagements. It was not clear whether this was due to sickness or visa problems brought on by COVID-19. His replacement was Thierry Fischer, the music director of the Utah Symphony. I had never seen Fischer in concert, but he turned out to be a fine musician with a restrained but forceful technique.

The first work on the program was Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings). The composer was only 20 when he wrote the piece, but it already foreshadowed some of the hypnotic lyricism of his later works. Thierry and the Cleveland Orchestra gave it a dynamic and soulful performance.

Next came Ravel’s far more familiar Piano Concerto in G major with a young soloist named Tom Borrow making his debut with the orchestra. Borrow was born in Israel and has already had considerable success in Europe. Before long I expect he will become a major star. At 21, he has a fabulous technique but also a maturity beyond his years. And in the Ravel he reveled in the jazzy elements, the playfulness, and the sublime beauty of the slow movement. What a pianist! And what an orchestra! I can’t recall ever hearing such verve and precision in a performance of the piece. Michael Sachs has been principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra since 1988, but he only seems to get better. On this night, his tricky trumpet licks were unbelievably accurate and exciting. The performance understandably brought the audience to its feet, and Borrow rewarded them with a dazzling performance of Debussy’s Prelude Book 2 No. 12 (“Feux d’artifice”).

Tom Borrow, making his Cleveland Orchestra debut, was the dazzling soloist in Ravel’s G-Major Piano Concerto. (Tal Givony)

After intermission came Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel orchestration. This is a piece for virtuoso orchestra in every sense of the word. I heard George Szell and the Clevelanders play this piece way back when, and it was just about as good as it gets. But wonder of wonders, the Cleveland Orchestra 55 years later with totally different musicians is still just about as good as it gets. And since its renovation in 2000, Severance Hall is better, if still somewhat lacking in bass response. I have heard louder and more exciting performances of Pictures but none as refined or as fastidious. These are qualities for which the Cleveland Orchestra is justly renowned, but I think they are also qualities Fischer wanted to bring out in the piece – and he did. Once again, Sachs offered a master class in trumpet playing right from his opening solo, played with wondrous authority, and throughout the piece.

It was a great concert, and I was glad I had made the trip to hear it. But luck was on my side, too. The day after the concert, the Cleveland Orchestra announced that Saturday’s concert would be canceled due to a member of the ensemble testing positive for COVID-19. A day later, the Sunday performance was canceled.

Cleveland is less than 300 miles from Toronto, and I have been making pilgrimages there as often as I can manage it. The city of Cleveland has been through very tough times, but the orchestra somehow manages to maintain its quality. No doubt some gifted music directors have had something to do with it, among them Szell, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Franz Welser-Möst.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Cleveland had become an industrial powerhouse, and the wealth of the city was staggering. Euclid Avenue was Millionaire’s Row, with 150 grand mansions in a four-mile stretch, including the residence of John D. Rockefeller. But it was too dependent on heavy manufacturing and steel plants. Over time, Cleveland lost its pre-eminence and became a rust-belt city. Population decline soon followed as jobs disappeared, and the decline continues to this day. But leading citizens have fought hard to revitalize their city. Anyone visiting Severance Hall for a concert can’t help but notice the extraordinary cultural resources in the University Circle area, from the vibrant campus of Case Western Reserve University to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. And downtown, the beautiful 1890 Arcade, modeled after an indoor mall in Milan, has been almost fully restored. The Marble Room, just down the street on Euclid Avenue, has to be one of the grandest restaurants to be found anywhere in the country.

Severance Hall has been home for the Cleveland Orchestra since the hall opened in 1931. (Roger Mastroianni)

After Cleveland, my plan was to move on to the Motor City to hear the Detroit Symphony under its new music director, Jader Bignamini. But we live in uncertain times. As we lingered for a few days in Cleveland after the concert, the news from Detroit was not good. A power failure at Orchestra Hall had forced the cancellation of the Friday program I was scheduled to hear on Sunday. Would there be a Sunday concert? Fortunately, matters were soon rectified, and the Sunday concert happened as scheduled.

Bignamini is a mid-career Italian-born conductor who began his professional musical life as a clarinetist in Milan. He became a protegée of Riccardo Chailly and soon established himself as a conductor to watch. He has since gained wide experience as both a symphony and opera conductor. Bignamini was scheduled to become music director of the Detroit Symphony with the 2020-21 season. But COVID-19 intervened, and there was essentially no live, in-person season, though the orchestra gave online performances. Detroiters have seen Bignamini before as a guest conductor, but this season they are finally getting to know him as their music director. By all accounts, the results so far have been overwhelmingly positive.

And on the basis of the concert I attended – a well-constructed all-American program – I would say that Detroit has landed one of the most charismatic and talented conductors at work anywhere. Both in his conducting and in his comments to the audience, Bignamini showed that he has an immense talent for connecting both with orchestras and with audiences. Above all, when the music began, he showed that he knows his stuff. He conducts nearly everything from memory and has a baton technique that is both fluid and imaginative.

As in Cleveland, patrons at Orchestra Hall in Detroit were required to present proof of vaccination, and mask wearing was mandatory throughout the building. The string players also wore masks.

The concert began with Copland’s El Salón México, and the performance had everything one could wish for. All the solo bits were played with technical mastery but also with joy and character.

Next came John Adams’ Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra with Branford Marsalis as soloist. This 2013 piece is a major work lasting half an hour, and in the program book the composer provides an interesting commentary on how much he has enjoyed great jazz saxophone recordings over the years. He obviously loves the instrument. Unfortunately, his concerto is surprisingly boring and monotonous, with scarcely a hint of jazz. Marsalis plowed heroically through the thousands of notes he was given to play but had little opportunity to show his stature as a jazz soloist. I came away from the performance wondering if the alto saxophone has either the range or the tonal variety to be featured in a symphonic concerto. But we know from listening to all those great jazz soloists that it does have much to say and many ways to say it; a pity that Adams wasn’t able to find them.

Jeff Scott’s ‘Paradise Valley Serenade’ was a crowd pleaser.

After intermission came another recent concerto by an American composer: Paradise Valley Serenade for wind quintet and orchestra by Jeff Scott. Unlike the Adams concerto, this is a crowd pleaser. It showed off the solo instruments and comfortably blended jazz and symphonic elements. Scott was in Orchestra Hall for the premiere of his piece, and the audience gave him the applause he deserved.

Finally, Bignamini gave us the familiar Robert Russell Bennett arrangements of tunes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Bignamini teased every ounce of expression out of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and raised the roof with “Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way.” Incidentally, the instrumentation for this piece listed in the program book was not accurate: It left out the vitally important banjo and three saxes.

The Detroit Symphony was one of the first American orchestras to regularly stream its concerts and is doing so again this season. This is a good opportunity to see the orchestra’s new boss in action. Don’t miss a stunning version of Respighi’s Pines of Rome from earlier this season. To access the video, visit the orchestra’s website here.

Like Cleveland, Detroit enjoyed enormous prosperity based on its strength as an industrial powerhouse then saw it all disappear. Economic decline, population loss, urban decay, and racial tension reduced Detroit to bankruptcy in 2013. As in Cleveland, there are courageous civic leaders who are doing everything they can to restore the city’s greatness. And there is much that they can point to with pride. The Detroit Institute of Arts is well worth anyone’s time, from the massive Diego Rivera murals in the Great Hall to the very large collection of Seventeenth Century Dutch paintings. I visited the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village when I was ten years old and they remain almost unique for the size of the project and the number of one-of-a-kind items in the collection. And if you are looking for a fine meal in Detroit, try a four-course dinner at The Whitney, the mansion on Woodward Avenue built by lumber baron David Whitney in the 1890s. It is a marvel of construction and contains numerous glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The view from the stage of Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019.

But now we come to the heart of the matter. How easy was it to cross back again into Canada, and was it worth the trouble? The big issue is the test. Any Canadian coming back from the U.S. must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test. And not just any test. It must be a PCR molecular test, not the rapid test, and the test must be done in the U.S. not more than 72 hours before presenting oneself at the border. So even before leaving Canada, I made appointments for the tests at a CVS pharmacy in Detroit. Canadians must also fill out in advance all the information needed for the ArriveCAN app. This too is a federal government requirement which involves, among other things, uploading a page from your passport and a photo of your proof of vaccination.

The pharmacy I had booked in Detroit was about six miles from our hotel and the test was a do-it-yourself job at a drive-thru window. There was a delay because the store’s computers were down, but we got the test done and our swabs were sent off to a lab for processing. Over the next few days we basked in the fond memories of a great concert by Bignamini and the Detroit Symphony, and I checked my phone every few hours for our test results. On Tuesday afternoon said results duly arrived and we jumped for joy on seeing the hoped-for word “negative” in both of them.

The next morning we had our documents in order and headed for the Ambassador Bridge to cross back into Canada. But we were still apprehensive, in spite of the negative test results, because the whole process is so confusing and downright intimidating. What if we had forgotten something? What if we had filled out the ArriveCAN document incorrectly? In the event, our interrogation went well, and we returned to Canada without any hitches.

In summary, while it is magnanimous for the United States to allow Canadians to enter the country once again, it is frustrating that Canada still insists on fully vaccinated returning Canadians to present negative test results before being allowed back. On the other hand, with COVID-19 cases rising again almost everywhere it is understandable that governments prefer to err on the side of caution. Great music beckons to Canadians from south of the border, and getting to it is now a lot easier. But getting back can be a confusing and challenging process.