Cleveland Orchestra Top-Notch Under Welser-Moest

Franz Welser-Moest and the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last week.
Franz Welser-Moest and the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last week. (By Osamu Honda -- Associated Press)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Cleveland Orchestra, which played a program of works by Antonin Dvorak, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claude Debussy at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday afternoon, remains a magnificent ensemble, with a sound so immaculately blended that it seems to emanate from a single shared musical impulse, rather than from the sensibilities and hard work of 100 disparate men and women.

This was the orchestra's first Washington visit since the fabled Christoph von Dohnanyi stepped down as music director in 2002. His replacement, the Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Moest, came in for some criticism from listeners who didn't think he was yet qualified to take over from Dohnanyi (was anybody ready to take over from Dohnanyi?) and from industry-watchers who were startled by the unusually lengthy contract the only-moderately-in-demand conductor received. The contract ensures his presence in Cleveland through the end of the 2011-12 season; most such engagements are for two or three years.

On the evidence of Sunday's concert, I could find no reason for much controversy about Welser-Moest. He certainly hasn't hurt the orchestra, which sounds just as pristine and elegant as it ever did -- like the world's largest chamber ensemble, in fact. You have the sense that it can do anything -- play just as loudly as Chicago, as smoothly as Philadelphia, with as much sensitivity to nuance as Baltimore -- but that such abilities are simply to be expected and that it would be vulgar to make too much of them. For such a virtuoso ensemble, the Cleveland Orchestra is remarkably self-effacing, like a dancer or martial artist who moves beautifully but covers up spectacular musculature in a long, loose cape.

And yet Welser-Moest's conducting, while skillful and serious at all times, was only occasionally inspired. Dvorak's Symphony No. 5, which sounds like something Haydn might have written had he lived into the mid-19th century, is sturdy and charming but not much more. Welser-Moest led with affection, letting the symphony unfold straightforwardly -- a succession of good tunes with an overlong finale -- but could not make the case for it as anything more than a pleasant novelty.

Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D ("Prague") was played expansively, with a rich and luminous tonal luster. And yet the opening movement seemed curiously nerveless, without the jaunty, healthy exuberance that seems to me its essence. It would be hard to complain about the Andante (which was a glorious wallow in string sound -- and such strings!) or the dashing, puckish wit of the finale, with its fleet, Rossinian oompah from the solo bassoon.

In many ways, Debussy's "La Mer" was the most satisfying performance of the afternoon: cool, prismatic, as intellectually interesting as it was delightful to the ear. For a composer who explored soft textural shading and the melding of orchestral colors as obsessively as Debussy did, his music demands the strictest precision in its execution, lest it turn to sonic mush. "La Mer" is a piece ideally suited to the Clevelanders, and Welser-Moest provided sure and straightforward leadership that only heightened one's perception of the score's inherent fancy and invention.

The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company