More than 2,500 Washingtonians skipped the Super Bowl Sunday night to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. They were rewarded with a concert full of surprises and excitement -- an athletic event, in a sense, where everybody could win. Besides, the Redskins could be taped for later enjoyment, while for the orchestra (a once-only experience, in real time with no playbacks) you had to be there.
The first half was full of brilliant, unfamiliar material. It began with Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bare Mountain," which has a family resemblance to but should not be confused with the well-known "Night on Bald Mountain," a later draft of the same idea in which Mussorgsky was posthumously "helped" and "improved" by his friend and chronic rewriter, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Mussorgsky's 1867 original, powerfully played Sunday under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, lacks the smoothness and polish of Rimsky-Korsakov's 1886 rewrite, but (like Mussorgsky's original "Boris Godunov") it has an elemental power that becomes diluted in the technically more perfect revision. "Its tone is hot and disorderly," Mussorgsky wrote in 1867, and so it is -- quite properly so, considering the diabolical/erotic subject matter. This version has a throbbing, dramatic finale, contrasting sharply with the serene conclusion added by Rimsky-Korsakov, and whatever the relative technical merits, it is music that can take you by storm and deserves its own existence.
"The Light," the first work composed for a standard orchestra by Philip Glass, received its Washington premiere. It is a musical description of the 1887 experiments in Cleveland that first measured the velocity of light. It has more variety than the familiar Glass style -- more complexity, more rapid thematic development and less repetition -- but it is still recognizable as the work of this composer. In this instance, Glass' penchant for repetition is appropriate, since the experiments were repeated hundreds of times and they used mirrors, which could easily be symbolized in repeated passages.
Glass is quite adept at orchestration, and Dohnanyi deftly brought out the strands of color in this music. There is a neo-romantic flavor in the score, which sometimes sounds as though Antonin Dvorak had been influenced by the minimalists. There were a few loudly shouted "boos" when Glass came out to take a bow, but they were drowned out by warm, prolonged applause.
The evening concluded with a brilliant interpretation of Schumann's Second Symphony, a reading full of power and lucidity that neatly brought out but did not overstate the music's dramatic contrasts.
Dohnanyi has clearly made this orchestra his own, though he has not entirely abandoned the great heritage of George Szell -- particularly the clarity that was one of his hallmarks. The Cleveland used to be called the "largest chamber ensemble in the world," and though the sound and style have changed, some of that quality can still be heard. There are times when the various sections of the orchestra stand out in relief as though each section were a solo instrument in an octet.