Jahja Ling returns to Blossom with Cleveland Orchestra

Jahja Ling
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Blossom Music Center, gorgeous as it is, seems to have become a second thought for the Cleveland Orchestra. The programming usually is so standard that it can border on the hackneyed. We hear only a few conductors and soloists of international stature.

And yet, with the right guests in the right works, the Cleveland Orchestra has the power to take us deeply inside the music.

The orchestra's concerts over the weekend filled the bill to a pleasurable degree in this respect. On the podium was Jahja Ling, the ensemble's former resident conductor and Blossom Festival director, who is music director of the San Diego Symphony.

Ling's long connection with the Cleveland Orchestra tends to reap artistic rewards when he returns to Northeast Ohio. His two programs on this occasion respected beloved composers (Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius) while also paying attention to Americans, one deceased (Gershwin) and two living (John Harbison and Eric Ewazen).

The Americans stood proudly amid their European counterparts. Gershwin's Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra is a familiar friend, its jazz influences melded into a classical framework with seamless suavity. The soloist Saturday was French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who has the impish wit and lyrical grace, if not the tonal juice, to project the concerto's alluring qualities. Michael Sachs' bluesy trumpet solo in the slow movement was a highlight.

Saturday's concert began with Harbison's "Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra," which the composer wrote during the long gestation period of his opera, "The Great Gatsby." The foxtrot dances with antic, sinuous urgency alongside moments of haunting darkness. The orchestra, including a dashing soprano sax soloist, gave it a vibrant account.

The American on Sunday's concert was Ewazen, a native of Middleburg Heights who teaches at New York's Juilliard School. Ewazen's Ballade for Clarinet, Harp and Strings sings lovely pastoral lines, almost like a British idyll, and takes the clarinet to the skies with the birds (Blossom's aviary ensemble was in fine form).

Franklin Cohen, the orchestra's principal clarinet, gave luminous flight to Ewazen's phrases, and principal harp Trina Struble provided silvery filigree. In an encore, Ewazen's Caprice (scored for the same forces), Cohen switched gears and became a paradigm of refined acrobatics.

The big work on Saturday's program was Brahms' Symphony No. 1, which Ling and the orchestra treated with disciplined intensity and authority. Ling emphasized the score's lyricism, maintained a sure sense of pacing and allowed the ensemble to speak in its most articulate solo and ensemble voices.

The orchestra sounded alert Sunday in Beethoven's overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus" and wondrous in a spacious, detailed performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 that kept the audience listening anew to the well-traveled sonic itinerary.

Ling's view of the piece has changed markedly over the decades. It is more brooding, expansive and noble than ever. He guided the orchestra Sunday as if he didn't want to let go, and the musicians helped him build Sibelius' majestic edifice to a stunning peak. Attendance was sparse, the response torrential.