Pianist lights up Cleveland Orchestra's salute to Israel

03.27.08
Shai Wosner
Miami Herald

The Cleveland Orchestra's Israel at 60 concert didn't exactly discover unplowed repertorial ground, with a popular Mozart piano concerto and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the latter heard on the same Knight Concert Hall stage twice last month.

Still, Wednesday's event, presented by the Greater Miami Jewish Foundation and the Braman Family Foundation, provided an opportunity to hear a new name with the impressive debut of pianist Shai Wosner. The concert at the Adrienne Arsht Center also afforded the chance to experience the esteemed Ohio ensemble under a different conductor than music director Franz Welser-Most.

In his last local podium appearance, conductor Michael Stern didn't make a strong impression leading the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra in its waning days. Since then Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, has been making the circuit of the major symphony orchestras. On Wednesday, he showed himself a more seasoned and flexible musician whose five years as the Cleveland Orchestra's assistant conductor clearly established a rapport with the players.

The only work with a genuine Jewish connection was the opener -- Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, written for a group of Russian musicians in New York during the composer's American sojourn, and scored for clarinet, piano and string quartet.

The Overture is not a Prokofiev masterwork, but colorfully mines and varies its Jewish folk material. The composer's arrangement for orchestra can sound glutinous, but Stern effectively kept string textures light and transparent, and clarinetist Daniel McKelway contributed the requisite klezmer quality to his solos.

Wosner proved the star of the evening as solo protagonist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21.

The Israeli pianist possesses a sterling technique and righted the balance after Radu Lupu's lackluster Mozart outing with the Clevelanders in January.

Wosner's quicksilver articulation was a pleasure throughout, and he brought a youthful vivacity perfectly suited to this most joyous of Mozart keyboard concertos. In the famous Andante, Wosner's poise and refinement were on the same level as the orchestra's tonal elegance, which is saying a lot.

The soloist also brought a subtle, slightly quirky element with some steep dynamic drops and hair-trigger color changes. Likewise his own pseudo-Rococo cadenzas stayed within Classical parameters -- just -- while adding a smart, subversive quality to his witty, delightful performance.

Stern's accompaniment was alert and attentive, and the Cleveland's playing was at its finest, though woodwinds were less tangible than they need to be in this repertoire.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 has been mined for its triumphant qualities in various political contexts. The heroic work's inclusion Wednesday reflected a celebrated performance of the mighty Fifth by Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic while the 1948 war still raged.

Stern led a solid middle-of-the-road reading with mostly fine spirit and pacing. At times, a slightly old-fashioned quality prevailed, with Stern utilizing Cleveland's full string complement and resulting in weighty textures, burnished and glorious as those textures were.

But with an orchestra with the kind of Beethoven legacy Cleveland owns, there was little to cavil about. The performance was rounded off with a majestic coda, though balances tended to slight winds and brass at the climaxes.