CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 15 FEBRUARY 2007
George Frideric Handel: "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba"—Sinfonia from Solomon (HWV 67). Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066; Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047. Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons. (William Preucil, v.; Nicholas McGegan, cond.)
In the nearly identical accounts in First Kings and Second Chronicles, the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon is dispensed with in about the space of a paragraph. Later stories expanded on that framework in fascinating ways. In the Qu'ran, the Queen thinks Solomon's glass-covered palace floor an expanse of water and hikes up her skirt to avoid getting it wet. In Ethiopian tradition, the Queen bore King Solomon a son who in turn founded the country's royal line. Fifties Hollywood cast Gina Lollobrigida as the Queen, and had her dance before Yul Brynner's Solomon in a supposed pagan rite that looks more like spring break in Cancún.
The Queen of Sheba also inspired one of Handel's greatest hits: the sinfonia that opens the third act of his oratorio Solomon. It's music so well known that it's a classical cliché. And that means it's right at home on this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts: two hours of audience favorites by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, led from the harpsichord by guest conductor Nicholas McGegan. This is a concert that practically begs for a program book cover graced by a clip-art violin and for a title to match: Baroque Blockbusters, perhaps, or Kapellmeisters on Parade.
Generic but amiable—such was the general tenor of the evening. The combination of a modern orchestra, Baroque music, and Severance Hall is not an entirely happy affair. From my seat, a muddy sonic mass often absorbed musical details—some of the bassoon lines in Bach's First Orchestral suite, for example. Nicholas McGegan's harpsichord was too often inaudible. And the Queen of Sheba? It was as if we were viewing her entrance from behind a sheer curtain.
There was more to admire in the Orchestra's rendition of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto, though in the opening movement the contributions of three of the soloists—violinist Ellen dePasquale, flutist Joshua Smith, and oboist Frank Rosenwein—too often vanished somewhere between the corpulent string sound and the dazzling trumpet of Michael Sachs.
Vivaldi, meanwhile, was represented by—what else?—The Four Seasons. Concertmaster William Preucil played the solo part with impressive facility but excessive gloss. Throughout the first three concertos, these Seasons were posh rather than naturalistic. Evocations of country life had all the rustic authenticity of a pops orchestra playing "Wichita Lineman." It was only in the outer movements of Vivaldi's "Winter" that Thursday's Seasons really came to life.
Preucil's version of The Four Seasons is reliable, but possibly too reliable for its own good. There are performances of this music that suffer from undue self-indulgence, and Preucil's strategy does, to be sure, have the virtue of avoiding such extremes. But as Gina Lollobrigida's Queen of Sheba oh-so-seductively reminds the Egyptian pharaoh: "For every plan, there is a price."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
Considered Opinions Main Page
Considered Opinions Archive
Considered Opinions Podcast