Cleveland Orchestra Plays Mozart and Brahms
The Cleveland Orchestra performed at Finney Chapel on Tuesday, Nov. 20, offering an incomparable demonstration of the fact that even the greatest orchestras need a great conductor. The orchestra itself sounded superb, as usual — ensemble was precise, and the sound from all sections was warm and glowing. Still, the music making was inexpressive, thanks to the leaden leadership of the orchestra’s assistant conductor, Jayce Ogren. The choice of repertoire didn’t always help either.
The program began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338, a relatively early work that anticipates — but does not achieve — the splendor of Mozart’s later works in this key such as the Piano Concerto, K. 503 and the Jupiter symphony. A sprightly performance could conceivably have disguised the piece’s blandness, but Ogren’s reading was as unremarkable as the work itself. Tempi were predictable (on the fast side in all three movements), and the performance tended to inch forward note-by-note and phrase-by-phrase rather than cohering in a satisfying whole. Despite this, the musicians themselves managed to make something relatively entertaining out of the first movement’s development section.
The full extent of Ogren’s lack of imagination was revealed in the second half, which was given over to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. This is one of the most performed works in standard orchestral repertoire, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that even great orchestras can sometimes be heard playing it on autopilot. I couldn’t have imagined a duller, more dispiriting reading of this enormously gripping symphony than the one Ogren offered.
Like many conductors, Ogren failed to do full justice to the first movement’s introduction. The all-important timpani strokes were not emphasized enough, and the pudding-smooth texture he wrought from the orchestra softened the music’s impact. He took the main Allegro and the rest of the symphony, at a measured, steady pace. This is not necessarily a bad thing — Otto Klemperer, in his great 1956 recording of the piece, opts for very similar tempi. But whereas Klemperer’s reading has unifying energy that makes it electrifying, Ogren simply settled for steady speeds and hung on for dear life. The first movement passed by uneventfully, without the violence or mystery it requires, despite powerful moments in the development section.
There wasn’t much improvement to report in the rest of the symphony. The lovely Andante was slow and phlegmatic, with Ogren’s iron hand strangling the attempts of the oboe and clarinet players to make something expressive out of their solos. This movement also contained the only real aberration on the part of the orchestra itself: the violin solo, which was delivered in a saccharine, vibrato-heavy manner that was completely out of place. The third movement began well enough, but the livelier middle section was stiff and flat, not nearly exuberant enough.
The introduction to the finale was the one section of the piece that came off well. A sense of mystery and suspense was finally palpable, and the French horn almost saved the day with its stirring solo, which sounded radiant and beautiful. It was as if the real Cleveland Orchestra had finally arrived. But it was back to business as usual for the remainder of the movement.