Offbeat Cleveland Orchestra program offers much to savor

Emanuel Ax
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Just exactly what music director Franz Welser-Most intended with the Cleveland Orchestra's program this week isn't clear. But the lack of a strong, coherent theme doesn't prevent enjoyment of what is, in fact, a piquant evening at Severance Hall, a menagerie of four diverse works in mostly striking performances. Best advice: sit back and savor the ride.

Musical threads were as scarce as empty seats Thursday as the orchestra presented one score apiece from this and each of the last three centuries, perhaps in preparation for the diverse offerings in store for this summer's Lincoln Center Festival. Still, the program made a certain structural sense, as the concert's two halves mirrored and echoed each other in sometimes telling ways. Additionally, Welser-Most took time Thursday to honor the four longtime players retiring at the end of the season.

Straddling intermission with masterful ease was pianist Emanuel Ax, soloist in both Haydn's D-Major Piano Concerto and Stravinsky's Capriccio, a small-scale concerto from 1929. Ax's Haydn was everything one could ask for. A model of lightness, softness, boldness, and quicksilver emotion, his performance amounted to pure manna for the Classical aficionado. Welser-Most and the orchestra strode nimbly alongside their colleague, last here in 2008.

Though 150 years younger, Stravinsky's Capriccio bore resemblance to the Haydn in the form of comparably restless moods and brisk tempos. But there the similarities ended. Haydn couldn't possibly have predicted Stravinksy's madcap romp, a fusion of Baroque and jazzy elements with a percussive style all his own. Neither could anything compare to Ax's performance: cohesive, suspenseful, and above all else, fun.

The evening concluded with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. That the work served as the last hill on a musical roller-coaster only made a jubilant score sound all the more festive. Moreover, there was much to love in the performance. Following in Ax's footsteps, Welser-Most kept textures crisp and contrasts sharp, guaranteeing effective delivery of the composer's ideas. Particularly engaging was the final Allegro, characterized by dynamic extremes.

Only late in the program, after visiting three other musical destinations, did the merit of hearing Adams' "Guide to Strange Places" at the top of the night become fully apparent. Between a brilliant team of percussionists and countless colorful solos, Thursday's performance more than covered the basics, conveying the music's mechanical energy and gradually increasing senses of urgency and darkness. But a Minimalist score such as "Guide" also hinges on clarity, and on that front, the reading came up short.

Doubtless the piece will be in tip-top shape this July, when the orchestra take it to New York. In the meantime, there's a little room for refinement, and much on this program to appreciate.