Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Jahja Ling dazzle at Blossom Music Center

08.10.09
Jahja Ling, Garrick Ohlsson, Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

For the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Jahja Ling, the piano concerto on the program Sunday, Aug. 9 at Blossom Music Center was their fifth in three days, not counting rehearsals.

That's what happens when you're the backup band for finalists in the Cleveland International Piano Competition.

Not even the most piano-weary, though, could have minded giving the genre another whirl with Garrick Ohlsson, the soloist Sunday in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2. One of the most distinguished artists in his field, Ohlsson one-upped the sweltering night with a performance evincing both intellectual and visceral heat.

On a night when many listeners showed up to celebrate Ling's 25th anniversary with the orchestra (and to attend a special post-concert reception in his honor), it was easy to overlook the fact that Ohlsson's association as a regular guest here goes back even further, to 1975.

But even listeners unfamiliar with Ohlsson's legacy in Cleveland might have suspected a history if they were paying attention. In the opening movement, Ohlsson displayed the insight of a master, articulating ideas with the decisive weight of a hammer. Elsewhere, he detected angry rumblings in the music's subsurface and used transitions to evoke enchanted waterfalls.

Similar magic awaited in the finale, where Ohlsson seized on menacing undercurrents in music some interpreters treat as a simple, free-spirited romp. Yet there was no lack of exuberance as the pianist answered both the score's demand for virtuosity and, later, the audience's request for an encore (Chopin's "Grande Valse Brillante").

For the orchestra, the concerto's most gratifying pages no doubt lay in the Andante, a serene interlude comprising dovetailed communication between cellos and woodwinds. Into this mix Ohlsson slipped with the most organic of ease, engaging in profound, spare conversation with his peers and saturating each solo note with feeling.

Schumann's Symphony No. 2 occupied the first half of the program in a fitting reprisal of the work that marked Ling's transformative first experience of the Cleveland Orchestra, on a recording conducted by former music director George Szell.

Anyone encountering the orchestra for the first time Sunday might have had a similar reaction. With Ling on the podium, the musicians exhibited a degree of verve rare even for them.

The opening Allegro had all the allure of an expert fencing match. An unflagging series of musical thrusts and parries ratcheted up intensity en route to a final, game-ending assault.

The Scherzo came to a friendlier conclusion. After establishing bold contrasts between its two trios -- one silken, the other robust -- the conductor found a way to unite them with their essential spirits intact. This, in turn, served as the prelude to an absorbing Andante that coursed like a stream through pockets of poignant turbulence.

All three of these movements, though, ended up functioning as a warm-up for the finale, a vigorous push from all parties. If ever the orchestra saluted Ling in music, this was the moment.