Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
To begin its Miami residency this month at downtown’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the renowned Cleveland Orchestra will take its listeners on an unusual journey through three very different sonic landscapes: late 19th-century Europe at its most cultured, a vibrantly imagined northern Spain where an American composer hopes one day to find the ghosts of his Basque rancher forebears, and the bleakness of Stalinist Russia in the late 1930s. Though Fire and Ice is curious in its chronology, Bruce Coppock, who since July has been the managing director of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami residency, hopes the juxtaposition will shed light on all three pieces.
Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 will be the first and largest piece of the January concerts performed at the acoustical gem that is the Knight Concert Hall. One of the composer’s most popular works, it is a concerto on an epic scale, in four large movements, and resplendent with memorable melody—including its famous opening horn call and the passionate cello solo that dominates the third movement. It is also monstrously hard to play. “Maybe the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 is the most difficult concerto for the instrument, not only instrumentally, but also musically,” says Yefim Bronfman, the Russian-born pianist who will be the soloist for the two performances. “I think it’s sort of a pinnacle of the repertory. I still find it very challenging.”
Brahms, who was the soloist at the Budapest premiere in 1881, was by every contemporary assessment—and the evidence of his own music—a wonderful pianist. Bronfman, 53, is himself a spectacular player, celebrated for his performances of the concerti of Brahms, Bartók, and Rachmaninov, among others.
“You want to give it a 3-D kind of experience,” Bronfman says. “There’s just so much more to the music than one hears in a lot of performances. It’s not only important to hear the notes played, it’s also important to hear the grandeur and the lyricism, the passionate and tender moments, of the piece.”
Also on the program is Wanderlust, a three-part tone poem completed in 2009 by Sean Shepherd, a Reno, Nevada, native who is the orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. Shepherd, 32, says the first section, “Prevailing Winds,” evokes his home region but wasn’t written specifically to describe a “windy Nevada desert” as much as it was a state of mind. “I [was] thinking of a kind of metaphor for the pileup of memories that are somewhere between vague and very distinct,” Shepherd says. The second section, “Seagulls on High,” is a postcard from the southeast English town of Aldeburgh, where Shepherd wrote the first version of the work as part of a compositional seminar. As it happens, Aldeburgh was the home of one of Shepherd’s idols, Benjamin Britten, and the movement conjures some of Britten’s own music, as well as the flavor of East Anglia. “It was probably a little more deliberate, just because I was there,” Shepherd says of referencing Britten. The last section, “Bilbao,” refers to the city in the Basque region of Spain that is home to Frank Gehry’s remarkable Guggenheim Museum, and the place where Shepherd’s greatgrandparents lived before coming to the American West. Wanderlust’s musical language is the most advanced on the program. Amid the echoes of Britten and Debussy, it goes its own gently dissonant way, rich with attractive colors and a very skillful use of a large symphony orchestra’s resources.
Perhaps chief among the three works is the final one, the Sixth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, a piece only now coming into its own as a repertory jewel, having been overshadowed for decades by the composer’s betterknown works. “Shostakovich symphonies are always huge emotional voyages,” says Coppock, noting that the orchestra’s music director, the Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, “believes fervently in this piece.” The Sixth premiered in Leningrad in 1939 to very good reviews, but over time it came in for harsher criticism, particularly for its unusual three-movement form. It begins with a dark, anguished slow movement succeeded by a short, lighthearted scherzo and a joyous, bustling finale that Shostakovich himself thought was one of his most successful closing achievements. The rubric Fire and Ice “does capture something about the contrast between the desolation of the first movement and the over-the-top, bacchanalian exuberance of the end,” Coppock says.
According to Michael Mishra, author of A Shostakovich Companion and a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the Sixth was considered by some observers to be a four-movement symphony that was missing something. “But I think the stock of the Sixth Symphony has actually risen, and people are now prepared to look at it and see it for the wonderful piece it is,” Mishra says.
Though the Brahms-Shepherd-Shostakovich order of the program is unusual, Coppock’s intent is to shed light on the “unknown masterpiece” that is the Sixth Symphony. “People will sit through this concert feeling much more comfortable about the first half than they are about the second, with a new piece and a Shostakovich symphony they don’t know,” he says. “But by the time they get to the end of the concert, they will have their heads turned around.”
The Cleveland Orchestra will perform January 27–28 at 8 PM in the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. For tickets, call 305-949-6722