Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Live Review – Kurt Masur Drives Cleveland Symphony…Throttle – Wide Open (2009.02.26)

masurKurt Masur drove the Cleveland Symphony like a Maserati GranTurismo. He didn’t come screaming off the factory lot. A conducting legend doesn’t have to. But, by the time he brought the players into the grand galloping finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the fortississimo seemed to be driving itself.

Now, I admit I’ve never driven a GranTourismo. But I’ll take Ben Harper of Bloomberg’s word for it: true Romance. Same goes for the Cleveland Symphony under the baton of Maestro Masur. And the interior of Severance Hall, like a sexy auto, shone with silver leaf and mocha-butter walls — a perfect Art Deco sounding board for every single note.

Like all good foreplay, the Symphony started off slow…exactly like: “A low burr that blossoms into a burble with more throttle.” That low burr of the Cleveland engine was a divine English horn solo, evoking the lovers in Taras Bulba — Janacek’s take on the Poles v. Cossaks “Romeo & Juliet” of novelist Nikolai Gogol. Then we make our first turn: hurling straight into battle. Church bells swell making the hall a cathedral of quaking crisis, before the organ solo sends a prayer up to God. Cleveland’s violinists strike down on the strings in crisp unison, like dagger blades piercing warriors’ breasts.

The second movement surprises with a solo harp opening that’s mechanically fast, yet sweetly penetrating. The violins and violas play a call and response in the heat of battle, bows bouncing in menace. Then the cellos, like cavalry, charge from the rear. Do the violas win? Hard to tell, as the drum pounds like helicopter blades. The clarinet with a jazzy flare, glimmers above the din before being extinguished in a clash of cymbals.

As for the Concerto, Beethoven’s 1st, a C-major jaunt, we had a nice harmonic truffle. Masur, with a winking nod to soloist Louis Lortie at the piano, started it off cleanly, working with a wide and stable triangular stance. Like a boxer, he conducted with the slightest shoulder shifts, the occasional little jumps.

Meanwhile, Lortie, at the paino keys, was light and deft. He’d rise up, suddenly momentous — seat off stool — for a pressure that struck surprisingly soft. He tickled the keys like one would a small babe, before leading the symphony right off into a fierce and funny finale.

For Beethoven’s Seventh, Maestro Masur seized his well-oiled players with full power –sans score. Effortlessly, he steered them around the fluid figures of the opening and they reflected the mighty sun of A major, just like gleaming metal over a shortened Quattroporte chassis.

It made me wonder: is there a chief virtue of a Symphony? I’ll say Cleveland testified to this: a unified voice of a multifaceted choir shinning in the grip of one fantastic driver on the well-paved autobahn of the great composers.

Meanwhile, I notice one violinist, the ubiquitous thin Asian femme, at least 5 months pregnant, and playing with full heart. What a treat to hear this symphony inside a player, swathed in velvet, flesh, muscle and fat. My seat was the next best in the house, front row center. And just like the Maserati is actually cheaper than a Ferrari, so the Cleveland’s best seat is just $40…versus the $200 Carnegie Hall or the Met.

Now, I can’t stop here, for the second movement was where we really started to fly. When the strings come on strong in this Allegretto, Masur is a man conducting an ocean. His left hand tembles lightly like a swift or a kite flying mid-air. Then, he thrusts a steady left arm full out over the violins, turning toward them. He gestures beckoningly towards his throat with the right: “Come, come. Deeper, deeper.”

Then he throws his arms out to the left side twice — like a man bailing water — only to draw it in again.

Suddenly, the most honorable horns declaim stately ascendancy above the strings. Never have I heard trombones and trumpets with such “pop” and sparkle — made more so by moments of understated delicacy. No mere pistons firing here. Lovely warm tones rose high over our heads and out to the sold-out upper tiers. Of particular strength, I think, are Cleveland’s French horns…who took one of the first bows.

These ladies and gents of Cleveland’s glory got three encores from their home audience. Humble Masur, who blows a kiss to his players with two fingertips after each piece, stood back and nodded. He held wide his arms: the Symphony. And the applause really kicked up. Such a packed house — and on a THURSDAY!  Whatever Cleveland’s doing, the BSO should take note. When Cleveland applauds, one hears an amazing phenomenon: civic ownership.

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6 Responses to “Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Live Review – Kurt Masur Drives Cleveland Symphony…Throttle – Wide Open (2009.02.26)”

  1. goodwillsidis says:

    bwahaha, Sam Buker is the jam!!

  2. E.K. says:

    I always wondered how Cleveland got so lucky, but I figured their sweet Ohio charm must earn the knowing among them that excellent orchestra.

    You make it sound even richer. I strangely now ache for Ohio.

    (Masur needs to lose the white suit, though, lest someone assume he’s frying up some chicken.)

  3. Lex O'Brien says:

    Wow. After reading that I think I can almost hear the last notes of Beethoven’s Seventh reverberating off the walls at Severance. And it’s a long way to Cleveland from here. But even just sensing the ghost of a great performance seems somehow satisfying. Thank you Sam Buker for capturing that spirit so deftly and bringing it home for us to enjoy.

    So now, how can we tune up the Baltimore symphonic experience for such high-performance GranTurismo thrills? Let’s talk about it.

  4. julie says:

    I was there today (Sunday, March 1, 3 pm) – This was a Beethoven 7th for the ages. It wasn’t just fast – it was springy; Masur’s recent forays into Mendelssohn might be a contributing factor. The dynamic range was breathtaking. The flutists were playing on wooden flutes, which gave a round sweetness to the sound. The horns were perfect and gleaming. The lowers strings were tight, clean, and big. I felt sad that it had to end. The audience sprung to our feet and clapped until the players themselves left the stage. Bravi, tutti, bravi.

    Clevelanders do feel an ownership of the orchestra. It’s financial state is fragile. The philanthropic base that built and the supported this magnificent beast has withered away. It is our last best treasure, and a cultural calling card to the world. And it’s ours.

    ps – Masur appears to have Parkinsn’s. I was seated in the very front of the dress circle. At first I thought he was conducting 16th notes. No matter, his authority is undiminished.

  5. Julz says:

    Sam! I’m happy you had a nice time in Cleveland, you really made the orchestra come alive for me. The way Julie describes the financial situation of the orchestra surprises me, since from your description it sounds untouchable by petty cash flow issues.
    It’s good to know an orchestra can hold its own under pressure, and sets an examples for the rest of us struggling artists.
    By the way, there is a Maserati dealership around Cockeysville, maybe we should go for a test drive?

  6. sam b. says:

    Julie’s assessment proves decidedly spot-on about the Fiscal Fix of the Cleveland Orchestra…

    Director is taking 20% pay cut…looks like programing cuts, plus guest conductors,like Masur, will have to “donate” themselves — or “discount” their genius.

    Full details: http://www.scena.org/brand/brand.asp?lan=2&id=61720&lnk=http://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2009/03/cleveland_orchestra_plans_deep_1.html

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