CLEVELAND – On Nov. 8, the American authorities decided it was safe to let Canadians enter their country by car. The next day I drove down from Toronto and crossed the border at Lewiston, New York and continued on to Cleveland. A few days later I attended a memorable concert by the Cleveland Orchestra. For someone who had been driving to Cleveland regularly since his teenage years to hear the likes of George Szell, Robert Shaw, Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi leading this great orchestra, it was a welcome and overdue return to normalcy.
For the record, there was no lineup when I crossed at Lewiston and immigration procedures were brief and uneventful. My impression at stops in Buffalo and Cleveland was that precautionary health measures were somewhat casual compared to Canada. Few people seemed to be wearing masks and there was not much social distancing. But at Severance Hall the authorities were much more strict. Proof of full vaccination had to be produced at the door and masks were required while seated and elsewhere in the building. On stage string players all wore masks throughout the concert, and the conductor, too, at least until he got to the podium.
A widespread consequence of the pandemic in the music world is frequent cancellations. This week’s concerts in Cleveland provided another example. The music director of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychov, was forced to cancel all his North American engagements. It was not clear whether this was due to sickness or visa problems brought on by COVID-19. His replacement was Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony. I had never seen Fischer in concert but he turned out to be a fine musician with a restrained but forceful and precise technique.
The first work on the program was Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings). The composer was only 20 when he wrote the piece but it already foreshadows some of the hypnotic lyricism of his later works. Thierry and the Cleveland Orchestra gave it a dynamic and soulful performance.
Next came Ravel’s far more familiar Piano Concerto in G major with a young soloist named Tom Borrow making his debut with the orchestra. Borrow was born in Israel and has already had considerable success in Europe. Before long I expect he will become a major star. At age 21 he has a fabulous technique but also a maturity beyond his years. And in the Ravel he reveled in the jazzy elements, the playfulness and the sublime beauty of the slow movement. What a pianist! And what an orchestra! I can’t recall ever hearing such verve and precision in a performance of the piece.
Michael Sachs has been principal trumpet since 1988 but he only seems to get better. On this night his tricky trumpet licks were unbelievably accurate and exciting. The performance understandably brought the audience to its feet. Borrow rewarded them with a dazzling performance of Debussy’s Prelude Book 2 No. 12 “Feux d’artifice.”
After intermission came Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel orchestration. This is a piece for virtuoso orchestra in every sense of the word. I heard George Szell and the Clevelanders play this piece way back when and it was just about as good as it gets. But wonder of wonders, the Cleveland Orchestra 55 years later with totally different musicians is still just about as good as it gets. And since its renovation in 2000, Severance Hall is better, if still somewhat lacking in bass response.
I have heard louder and more exciting performances of “Pictures” but none as refined or as fastidious. These are qualities for which the Cleveland Orchestra is justly renowned but I think they are also qualities Thierry wanted to bring out in the piece. Once again, Sachs offered a master class in trumpet playing right from his opening solo. He played with wondrous authority throughout.
After Cleveland I am moving on to the Motor City and a concert by the Detroit Symphony under its new conductor Jader Bignamini. In a few days I’ll have a report on that concert for LSM readers, and an account of my experience getting back into Canada. Remember that Canadians still need to take a COVID-19 test in the U.S. no more than 72 hours before crossing the border.