CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 9 MARCH 2006
Aaron Copland: Our Town; Symphonic Ode. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"). (Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.)
A 1965 letter by Thornton Wilder, published a few years ago in a collection of his Finnegans Wake correspondence, describes his friend Dr. Percival Bailey. In addition to being a hard-working brain surgeon, Bailey was a music lover—but a music lover of decidedly narrow interests. In fact, the only composer he ever wanted to listen to was Beethoven. Wilder argued with him, telling him that Beethoven himself revered Haydn, Mozart, Bach. It was to no avail. "Beethoven," Wilder writes, "was his only spiritual nourishment."
Thursday evening's Cleveland Orchestra program might have offered sustenance for both Wilder and Dr. Bailey. The evening opened with an evocative performance of Aaron Copland's music for the film version of Wilder's Our Town and closed with Beethoven's Third Symphony. Beethoven aficionados who were disappointed, as I was, with James Gaffigan's rhythmically flaccid account of the Fifth Symphony two months ago can take heart: this version of the "Eroica," under the baton of San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, was far more purposeful. I was, mind you, rather uncomfortable with Thomas's management of tempo in the second movement. He slowed dramatically just prior to the transition out of the movement's central major-key section, then took the returning opening theme at a lugubrious pace. The result was that the music's available energy seemed to have been depleted just prior to the beginning of the double fugato. As a result, this climactic passage, which can be emotionally devastating in the best performances, seemed a bit enervated. And yet it was not long before the music again found its dramatic footing: the subsequent entrance of the cellos and basses, grinding out a double-forte pattern of triplets, was gritty and powerful.
Thomas's high-energy treatment of the symphony's finale, one of Beethoven's great exercises in the theme-and-variations form, shared none of the slow movement's shortcomings. Here, the contrapuntal styles of variations 4 and 8 were infused with exemplary energy. Number six had an engagingly lusty flavor, number nine orchestral textures of splendid delicacy. If this was not quite my ideal "Eroica," its virtues were more than adequate to warrant a solid recommendation.
Between Beethoven and Our Town, Thomas offered less familiar music: Copland's 1930 Symphonic Ode, which Thomas has recorded with the San Francisco Symphony. In Thursday's performance, the music sounded more episodic, edgier, but no less potent than on that CD. Thomas has told of an outing he, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland made to a posh restaurant near Tanglewood. At dinner, Bernstein and Thomas engaged in an impromptu performance of Stravinsky's Les Noces, singing at the top of their voices and banging on the silverware, even as a nervous Copland tried unsuccessfully to quiet them. The best parts of the Symphonic Ode are like that dinner must have been: a marvelous, exuberant, unforgettable racket. If you don't know this savory fare, by all means, book yourself a table.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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