When I was in college and prone to going out to all hours of the night, I’d look forward to Friday like many students because it meant the weekend (and its subsequent parties) had arrived. Of course, how I kicked off the weekend back then was a lot different than how I like to start it now. From Polka Happy Hour to a movie at The Capitol, there are plenty of better ways to jumpstart the weekend besides my former gallivanting. And now there’s a new addition to my slate of options: the Fridays@7 series at the Cleveland Orchestra.
With an early start time, the Fridays@7 series provides a full evening of music and pre- and post-concert celebrations. The doors to Severance Hall open up at 5pm for a pre-party of drinks, food and entertainment. Then at 7, the Orchestra presents a concert without intermission, and an afterparty of artists selected by percussionist Jamey Haddad rounds out the unique evening. In addition to being an entertaining way to escape the stresses of the work week, the Fridays@7 series provides much more than an evening’s worth of geographically and stylistically diverse music.
This past Friday was the opening concert in the 2010-2011 Fridays@7 series. Scott and I headed over to Severance Hall after a long week of work, happy to get our weekend started a little early. As we walked into Severance’s lobby, we were welcomed by the drum beats of Cleveland’s own Passport Project who kicked off the evening with the pre-party. Passport Project is a local world music and dance ensemble who strives to build community and encourage diversity by designing lectures, interactive performances and concerts. Besides the beats they provided, an aspect of their concert I enjoyed was encouraging guests to introduce themselves to at least 2 people they didn’t know. While I sometimes shy away from networking exercises, it was a relaxed enough environment where this flowed very comfortably. It also helped that the bar was open, where guests could purchase libations and light food before the main event.
As 7 o’clock arrived, the crowd moved into the main hall of Severance. As Conductor Franz Welser-Most took the stage, you could already tell this would be different than some of the other concerts I had been to. Instead of the traditional suit and tails, Welser-Most and each musician were dressed in semi-formal black. The concert itself featured a dual performance – Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s Dream/Window and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (often referred to as Eroica/The Heroic).
The two pieces the Orchestra performed definitely had their share of differences in style. Takemitsu’s Dream/Window was a modern interpretation of the Japanese Buddhist garden Saiho-ji as if being viewed in a dream and through a window. The overlapping harmonies and sometimes twisting, incoherent manner of the music had a unique and haunting effect as the piece mirrored the different perspectives of the garden. Beethoven’s Eroica – composed in the early 1800s – took some of its inspiration from Beethoven’s admiration of Napoleon as a heroic leader.
However, although Eroica is more traditional than the modern 1985 Dream/Window, it wasn’t originally as well-received as it is today. In addition to the original inspiration of Napoleon, there was also a deeply personal exploration in the basis of the piece as it was written around the time Beethoven publicly acknowledged his deafness. Instead of allowing the knowledge of his deafness to debilitate him, it is said his work on Eroica could have saved his life. The end result was 4 movements of dynamic, tumultuous and sometimes irreverent sound that shed new significance with each listen. Subsequently, the decision to perform Dream/Window and Eroica with their different styles, but similar impact, was a very deft one on the part of the Orchestra.
In addition to a night of challenging music, the concert was yet another opportunity to observe how the Orchestra’s performances are a level of art completely separate from the pieces themselves. This was the first time I haven’t sat in the lower level of Severance. While I enjoy being close because it establishes an almost personal connection with the musicians, sitting in the upstairs Dress Circle allowed us to see how the entire ‘machine’ flows together. As Welser-Most led the musicians, you could see the instant reverberations of his movements spread from the strings back to the timpani and percussion sections. From the great restraint he exhibited in tiny flicks of his hands, to dramatic gestures or gentle, sweeping motions, the musicians played as if they were a perfect extension of Welser-Most. It reminded me of why I could see the Cleveland Orchestra perform almost anything and still be amazed simply by the beauty of them playing.
The evening was perfectly bookended by Nation Beat, a fusion group of Brazilian and southern U.S. styles. As we made our way from our seats to the Grand Foyer, you could hear the afterparty had already begun. Although Nation Beat heralds from New York, their music is a mix of Brazilian maracatu drumming, New Orleans second line rhythms, Appalachian-inspired bluegrass music, funk, rock, and country-blues. They provided an energizing performance where all of these styles flowed together seamlessly and guests had a chance to get up and dance. Connecting the performance back to Cleveland, Nation Beat brought up musicians and singers from the Cleveland Institute of Music to join in on a piece they had practiced earlier that day when Nation Beat visited CIM.
The Fridays@7 series continues throughout the year with The Heroic Mahler on Dec. 3, A Hero’s Life on Jan. 14, Romantic Rachmaninoff on April 1, and Eighth Blackbird on May 27. This season not only features invigorating performances of musically diverse pieces, but also includes a Cleveland premiere and a conductor’s Cleveland Orchestra debut.
The entire Fridays@7 series is included as a subscription, or you can purchase individual tickets if there are a couple concerts in particular you’re interested in. Personally, I’m very excited for the May 27 performance, which will feature Welser-Most as conductor and Joshua Smith on flute in Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon’s concerto. It’s a much more enjoyable way to unwind than my revelries in years past.