Cleveland Orchestra: East Meets West with Bartok, Hosokawa and Takemitsu

 

This past weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concert was an artfully chosen pairing of pieces by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and Japanese composers Toru Takemitsu and Toshio Hosokawa. (photo of Severance Hall from flickr.com/photos/clevelandorchestra)

Lately I’ve been trying to discover more about the Cleveland blogging community. One of the blogs I’ve enjoyed reading is Cleveland Food and Brews, which focuses on how it’s not just wine that can complement a good meal, but also a nice well-crafted beer.  When there’s a particularly complementary pairing of food and drink, it raises the meal to another level.

Now you’re probably asking yourself what this has to do with the Cleveland Orchestra. Like the similarities and differences of fine food and drink playing off one another, this weekend’s concert at the Cleveland Orchestra expertly paired the styles of three composers for a musically enlightened program. With two pieces by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and a piece each by Japanese composers Toru Takemitsu and Toshio Hosokawa, Conductor Franz Welser-Most and the Orchestra contrasted the influences of Eastern and Western styles against one another. However, as musicologist Peter Laki wrote in the program notes, there has been a long speculation about the similarities and kinship between the Hungarian and Japanese languages – making for an interesting evening.

The evening started with Woven Dreams, a composition by Hosokawa. Hosokawa is actually the first currently living composer I’ve seen performed at Severance, and the performance of Woven Dreams over the weekend was its U.S. premiere (with the world premiere happening over the summer at the Lucerne Festival by the Cleveland Orchestra). This piece actually surprised me as both Scott’s and my favorite of the evening.  Inspired by a dream Hosokawa once had about being a child in his mother’s womb, it had an almost imperceptible  beginning – very quietly building from a long B-flat tone. The waves of gradual, dissonant sound were mysterious – almost subtlely ominous at moments. The other thing I enjoyed was how the percussionists contributed so many sounds that filled in the background of the piece – jumping throughout between a wide assortment of instruments.

The other piece written by a Japanese composer was Garden Rain by Takemitsu. Scott and I had last seen a piece by Takemitsu at the October Fridays@7 concert when the Orchestra performed Dream/Window. That composition was inspired by the Buddhist garden Saiho-ji. Hailing from a country where gardens had been developed as a supreme artform, Takemitsu often focused on them in his work. Garden Rain was a short piece – running just under 10 minutes – for two brass quintets. Interestingly, Takemitsu was often influenced by Western literature and philosophy such as Finnegan’s Wake and Water and Dreams, influences which can be seen in Garden Rain. While I typically don’t think of exclusively brass pieces as serene, there was something very soft to it.  The staging of the musicians was also interesting – with the two quintets seated far upstage and a large void between them and Welser-Most.

Acclaimed French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend. (photo from harrisonparrott.com, credit Felix Broede and DG)

These pieces were alternated with two pieces by Bela Bartok – his Piano Concerto No. 2 and Music for Stringed Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. Bartok was a Hungarian composer in the early-to-mid 1900s, deeply inspired by the folk music of his culture and his Russian contemporary Igor Stravinsky. Both of these inspirations were evident in the two pieces performed at this weekend’s concerts.

Although Scott found he had a problem with the cohesion of the overall Piano Concerto No. 2, I enjoyed its three movements and how the piano solo played into the other instruments. I particularly liked the third movement – which had sections structured like Hungarian folksongs and a finale that ended in a decisive and abrupt moment.

The first time the piece was performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, Bartok himself was the piano soloist. At this weekend’s concert, Piano Concerto No. 2 was performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard is a French pianist, acclaimed as one of today’s most important, skilled in both contemporary and classic music. He first performed with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1996 and has frequently returned to play in Severance as an artist-in-residence and going on tour throughout Europe and the U.S.  As someone who had not seen Aimard perform before, I realized moments into the piece why he is revered. He was clearly skilled but notably gracious and modest even during the audience’s applause – sharing the praise with Welser-Most and the rest of the Orchestra. It’s a welcome trait in a soloist.

The second Bartok piece, Music for Stringed Instruments, Percussion and Celesta, was an interesting four movements that alternated between slow-fast-slow-fast rhythms. My favorite part – similar to Concerto No. 2 – was the last movement. It was lively at moments coupled with a certain precision and crispness to the notes. Because of this, there was an almost animated dance to Welser-Most’s conducting as he led two choirs of musicians seated in opposition of one another. The contrasts of the two sets of musicians, as well as the alternation between the first, second, third and fourth movements’ tempos, struck me as reminiscent of the evening’s pairings – different yet connected to one another. As it worked for the entire concert, these alternating musical personalities worked in Music for Strings.

After this weekend’s performances, the Orchestra is off to Indiana for its Indiana University Residency, then Miami for its residency at the Adrienne Arsht Center. With additional stops in Chicago, Michigan, and Carnegie Hall, the Orchestra returns to its home in Severance Hall on February 11th.  Whether it’s here or there, the Orchestra is bringing artfully chosen concerts like Bartok, Takemitsu and Hosokawa to its all of its audiences.

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