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Young conductor succeeds again with Cleveland Orchestra, Shaham

02.20.09
Gil Shaham
Cleveland Plain Dealer

As gaps between conductor appearances go, four years and a few months isn't especially large.

But after hearing Kirill Petrenko conduct the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time since his Severance Hall debut in October 2004, even that short period seems too long.

Petrenko's chemistry with the orchestra is remarkable. Though young, he possesses a veteran's power to cull the orchestra's finest, its sharpest in terms of articulation and expression.

The clearest evidence of the team's productive relationship can be found this weekend in Dvorak's Symphony No. 7. Under Petrenko, the orchestra finds myriad ways to make a rich, well-known score sizzle afresh.

Woodwind details featuring flutist Joshua Smith float to the surface in the opening Allegro, rising through string passages taut and buoyant. As the passionate music winds to a close, Petrenko brings the movement in for an impeccably soft landing.

Flashes of turbulence propel the otherwise-calm Adagio as Petrenko shapes an organic arc from serenity to effusion. Behind it all is a firm pulse steadily gathering momentum.

Petrenko and the orchestra make short, exciting work of the Scherzo, adopting a strong rhythmic profile and sweeping through secondary material with unflagging zest. Not until the finale, though, does the collaboration truly come to fruition.

Taking cues from the curvy main theme, Petrenko applies elastic dips between phrases, using each as a springboard. Bold brass anchor the ever-expanding musical mass until all the energy is diffused in a forceful release.

A second catalyst setting Petrenko and the orchestra on fire this weekend is Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" -- perfect for a tone poem based on Dante's "Inferno."

In lieu of swooning romanticism, Petrenko offers tensile strength, keeping textures light and articulation crisp. The performance finds drama not in gestures heavy or grandiose but in a restless charge forward. In this setting, the middle portion, played with dreamy elegance, comes off as crucial, an island in an otherwise stormy sea.

If Petrenko has a counterpart in the violin world, it's Gil Shaham. Like the conductor, Shaham is a consummate technician with an intense emotional side.

Appearing this weekend as the soloist in Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, Shaham enjoys himself enormously, meeting the spiky, animated piece head-on with snappy attacks and a focused, laser-like sound. Throughout his performance, he paces near the podium, coordinating with Petrenko and conversing musically with members of the orchestra.

But Shaham's most poetic work takes place in the concerto's two arias. On top of light, chugging figures in the cellos and basses, Shaham drops out tender-soft notes like cotton balls on a bed of feathers.

Like the interlude in the Tchaikovsky, Shaham's arias stand out in this intense evening. What's more, they serve as reminders that both Shaham and Petrenko are welcome in Cleveland at any time.