James Gaffigan leads CityMusic Cleveland concert with energy, sensitivity

Joshua Roman
Cleveland Plain Dealer

CityMusic Cleveland usually does its elegant thing playing free classical concerts throughout Northeast Ohio, but its base is growing. This week, the professional chamber orchestra is presenting family programs here and there and venturing out of state for the first time for appearances in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Expanding artistic horizons left music director James Gaffigan and company with only one local evening concert this month, instead of four or five, which a large audience savored Wednesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights. The composers were familiar, the music-making far from routine.

How could it possibly be otherwise? Gaffigan is a conductor who mixes uncommon sensitivity with spontaneous-combustion energy. He shaped several ballet episodes from Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" as if he and his colleagues were primed to dance these sequences.

Gaffigan applied fine buoyancy to Mozart's courtly lines and thrusting fervor to the impassioned sequences. The orchestra responded with playing that blended clarity, refinement and edge-of-seat intensity.

The night's guest was Joshua Roman, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music who was appointed principal cello of the Seattle Symphony at 22 and recently stepped down to embark on a solo career. He is a rangy, curly headed musician who towers over the instrument even as he draws ample poetry from its strings.

On this occasion, Roman may not have explored all of the contrasts that lie within Schumann's beloved Cello Concerto. A few rushed moments and chancy intonation crept into his playing. But the account also had generous sweep and a keen sense of the music's brooding and noble qualities. Roman followed up with a solo encore, Mark Summer's snazzy "Julie-O," full of genial syncopated figures and pizzicato flourishes.

Gaffigan and the orchestra were alert in the Schumann and on a higher level altogether in Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, among the sunniest essays in the genre. The performance was a model of crackling vigor, lyrical sweetness and articulate ensemble. CityMusic's strings spoke in their crispest tongues, the winds were bright and the brasses and timpani aristocratic exemplars of Classical style.