Showpiece and symphony switch roles on Cleveland Orchestra program

Jahja Ling
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Routine held little sway with the Cleveland Orchestra Sunday night at Blossom Music Center.

In a reversal of the predictable concert pattern, the brilliant showpiece that usually grabs headlines didn't, and the academic, relatively mild-mannered symphony proved anything but.

Ostensibly, it was simply a night of Russian firsts: Tchaikovsky's first Piano Concerto and Shostakovich's first Symphony, the former slated to score big and the latter, completed while the composer was a student, destined to leave more complex impressions. But the reality under guest conductor Jahja Ling proved quite different.

Pianist Arnaldo Cohen, a native of Brazil and professor at Indiana University, brought all requisite talent and strength to bear on the Tchaikovsky, dashing off its giant chords, sweeping themes, and virtuoso displays with utmost force. Yet what he boasted in muscle, he lacked in personality, leaving the music on the level of bombast.

Neither was the artist aided by his tendency to rush, to blur flowing passages and dial down contrasts in tempo and dynamics. But of the final Allegro, Cohen was the ideal interpreter. His driving manner suited the music perfectly, heightening its already acute excitement.

More compelling, ultimately, was Ling's understated take on the Shostakovich. By not hitting listeners over the head, he made a poignant statement with a score overflowing with evidence of talent and personal identity. What's more, the long-standing chemistry between Ling and the orchestra was clearly intact.

Textures in the outer movements hovered in a charmingly light realm. Individuals around the orchestra made comments full of wit and character, and Ling maintained order even when wielding an occasionally heavy hand.

As it happens, though, the high point of the performance was the score's emotional nadir, the Lento, with its stringent dissonance and incremental build-up of pressure. For early Shostakovich, it was mature stuff.

The evening opened with a score that, unlike the larger program, deliberately set out to deceive: Schnittke's "(K)ein Sommernachtstraum" ("[Not] ASummer Night's Dream").

What began as an elegant homage to Mozart turned quickly into a devilish mash-up, a Classical hallucination full of gestures humorous and profane. Some no doubt found this anti-dream a travesty, but others, this listener included, could only smile and enjoy a whimsical piece in a dynamic performance.