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Blossom concert testifies to warm bond between Cleveland Orchestra, Jahja Ling

Jahja Ling
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Affection may not be a musical value like articulation or intonation, but its presence or absence can still make a huge difference, as Saturday's performance by the Cleveland Orchestra confirmed. Just by the first few bars of a showy but demanding program, even listeners new to Blossom Music Center might have guessed at the strong bond that exists between the orchestra and guest conductor Jahja Ling, now in his 27th year of working in Cleveland. That's how specially charged the performance was, and not just in the beginning.

First, though, the headliner: pianist Yuja Wang. The risen star of the piano world made her Cleveland debut Saturday, sporting a bright-red gown and shining musical megawatts in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. No matter that Prokofiev intended the score for himself, as a solo vehicle. So deeply did Wang inhabit the piece, it might as well have been written just for her. To the concerto's feistiest pages, Wang brought intense focus and hurricane-like power, whipping up storms verging on the violent. Yet the pianist also modeled exceptional delicacy, treating parts of the Andantino like they were made of glass. Those aspects alone would have made for a thrilling account, but Wang went one step further Saturday, underscoring not just the music's instability but also its quirkiness, its harmonic and textural peculiarities. In short, it was a feast of a performance, one that more than justifies an invitation to Severance Hall.

Rachmaninoff's orchestral music can fall flat in less than capable hands, but in Ling's, the "Symphonic Dances" were downright fetching. Some interpreters have trouble locating the music's life-force, but Ling -- music director of the San Diego Symphony -- and the orchestra he served for over two decades found it instantly and held on for a vibrant, suave performance. Here those more traditional musical values came into play. Beyond affection, the performance evinced technical finery in the form of elegantly tapered phrases, organic transitions, and a luminous tone. The Lento, especially, was a dream-like scene in Ling's rendering, alternately feverish and haunting. Ling's August appearance ended on the most charming of notes. Where a twinge of darkness pervades the Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio espagnol" is unabashedly upbeat.

The performance wasn't flawless in technical terms, but it lacked for nothing by way of vigor or charisma. Ling took a collaborative approach, drawing bold outlines and leaving the task of supplying colors and flavors to several instrumental soloists, each of whom flourished in that spotlight. Still, the dominant trait, warmth, came not from any overhead fixtures but rather from the friendly connection between orchestra and conductor. Ling hasn't been on staff in Cleveland since 2005, but in so many ways, it's like he never left.

Luckily for us, too, Saturday wasn't Ling's only visit this year. He'll be back next month to conduct the season finale.