CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 29 MARCH 2007
Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major. Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique: épisode de la vie d’un artiste, Op. 14. (Gil Shaham, v.; Stéphane Denève, cond.)
"Poppies will put them to sleep," cackles the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. And, indeed, the scientific name of one particularly useful variety of poppy attests to its narcotic qualities. For it is from papaver somniferum, or the "sleep-bearing poppy," that we derive opium, morphine, and codeine. Once the jealousy of Shakespeare's Othello is awakened, Iago observes that "Not poppy, nor mandragora, / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world" will help the Moor rest easy.
Not that, to judge from the program of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, an opium dream is terribly restful. One can only hope that Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion were not subjected to visions of witches' orgies and lopped-off heads. Surely Oz was sufficiently psychedelic on its own. Severance Hall is another matter, and one doesn't hesitate to welcome the inclusion of Berlioz's fantasy on this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra programs—especially when it receives as enjoyably rowdy a performance as Thursday evening's, led by guest conductor Stéphane Denève.
Mind you, Denève's Fantastique was not always entirely convincing. His management of tempo in the first movement seemed somewhat contrived, for example. And the degree to which he underlined the appearance of the idée fixe a third of the way through the "Ball" movement seemed to belabor the obvious. But there were details of this interpretation which would be difficult to better, including the atmosphere of unabashed vulgarity which Denève conjured up at appropriate moments. And though Thursday's "March to the Scaffold" seemed a shade rushed, it had just the right hint of roughness around the edges.
The Berlioz was preceded by Gil Shaham's bracing performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. When Shaham was last heard with the Cleveland Orchestra, his talents were wasted on the mawkish "Butterfly Lovers" concerto. The Beethoven offers a far more engaging vehicle for Shaham's dynamic playing and stout tone.
Shaham and Denève are an exciting team to hear. Denève opened the Beethoven at a nicely crisp tempo, and when he reached the work's second theme he didn't do much to emphasize the contrast with what had gone before. Such dramatics were—strategically, it seemed—left to the soloist, whose highly inflected performance soared above Denève's rock-solid accompaniment. Only in the G-minor episode of the concerto's closing Rondo did Shaham and Denève sound slightly at odds with one another. Elsewhere, and particularly in the second half of the first movement development, this performance featured the sort of palpable musical interplay you might expect from a jazz concert.
If this were a CD, repeated listenings might drain some of the appeal from Shaham's outsized musical gestures. But, as far as live concerts go, you won't find much better than this—purposeful, daring, and so invigorating that "all the drowsy syrups of the world" couldn't induce a concertgoer to nod off.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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