The Cleveland Orchestra is widely regarded as the most polished ensemble in America. It’s a high-performance vehicle, a perfectly synchronized musical mechanism that can stop on a dime, accelerate with ease and hug the corners of the most difficult music. True, the Chicago Symphony may play with more raw power and energy—its legendary brass seemingly blows hurricane force winds. And the Philadelphia Orchestra, with that famously rich string sound, is the symphony of choice if you prefer Old World style and elegance. But it’s the Cleveland Orchestra—which combines a lustrous sheen with expertly calibrated virtuosity—that puts it all together.
On Monday, the Cleveland Orchestra under music director Franz Welser-Möst was in Nashville, giving the already reputable acoustics of the Schermerhorn a test drive. It goes almost without saying that the hall passed the test with distinction. Schermerhorn revealed this orchestra’s every sound—from the resonant bottom of its basses to the chirping top of its flutes—with remarkable purity and transparency. And Cleveland took full advantage of these acoustics, which gave the ensemble the viscosity it needed to switch from one extreme register to the next without stripping gears.
The concert opened with an ideal orchestral test piece, Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23. This relatively short work lasts little more than 20 minutes, but it makes extraordinary demands on the orchestra. Since the score frequently calls on them to play extended solo passages of precipitous difficulty, most of the principal musicians are treacherously exposed. Ensemble sections, meanwhile, must be played with absolute precision.
There was much to admire in Cleveland’s performance. The voice leading was crystal clear, the dynamics were expertly balanced and the intonation was always dead on—indeed, Cleveland’s horn section was a revelation, since it could be both edgy and in tune at the same time. Everything else about the performance was also in sync, with melting strings and pungent winds dovetailing effortlessly with blazing brass.
But that kind of perfection has its drawbacks. Since this orchestra lacks rough edges, its ensemble sound tends to blend into the background. Like a beautiful ice sculpture, a perfect ensemble is brilliant, sparkling, incredibly smooth—and cold. As such, the sounds that most linger in our ears are not the ensembles but the solos, which are by nature idiosyncratic. Concertmaster William Preucil’s foot-stomping solo playing elicited the evening’s one audible exclamation. A heartrending solo cello also managed to rivet our attention, despite the accompaniment of some nagging winter coughs and (incredibly at one point) a crying baby.
Gustav Mahler once described his Symphony No. 1 as “Heaven-storming music.” Cleveland’s performance of this piece was so controlled that it often seemed more like a smart and spiffy military parade than a charge into battle. The orchestra was at its best in the second-movement “Ländler,” which truly possessed the grace, charm and simplicity of a rustic peasant dance. There were also moments during the third-movement funeral march—with its macabre round based on the song “Frère Jacques”—that raised a few goose bumps.
Yet in the outer movements, Welser-Möst and his Clevelanders often seemed more focused on details than emotion, resulting in an interpretation that was sometimes easier to respect than love. Needless to say, Cleveland’s Mahler received a sustained standing ovation. We can only hope it’s the first of many great orchestras that will visit the Schermerhorn.