Jeff Corwin, Indigenous and The Cleveland Orchestra in Salzburg

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The reviews of Franz Welser-Möst’s and the Cleveland Orchestra’s pit orchestra debut for the new production of Dvorak’s Rusalka this summer at the Salzburg Festival have been fantastic. Here are some of the more interesting excerpts.

From Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Antonín Dvořák’s “lyrical fairytale” Rusalka may be the most popular Czech opera after Smetana’s Bartered Bride, but a folk opera it is definitely not. Franz Welser-Möst and his Cleveland Orchestra make that much abundantly clear from the beginning. Here is a lushly blossoming, brilliant, yet extremely sophisticated sound, in which the soloists remain audible even in the fullest tutti. The gradual increases in intensity, unleashed by this top American orchestra during moments of great dramatic surges and releases of energy, would have an even stronger effect at the Grosses Festspielhaus than they do at the Haus für Mozart. Yet Welser-Möst keeps even the loudest fortissimo passages under strict control, and lets them evolve into the gentlest pianos, making sure that the lyrical element can hold its own amidst the maelstrom of the dramatic flow. It was a terrific way to open the Salzburg residency of The Cleveland Orchestra, which had prepared its operatic festival appearance with two concert performances of Rusalka at home.

From Die Welt
In the composer’s Bohemian homeland, Rusalka is a national opera, along with Smetana’s Bartered Bride. Elsewhere it is a rarity in the repertory. For the Salzburg Festival, too, this most recent of the great operatic productions was a local premiere. The three-act opera has yet to shake a double prejudice: the accusation of folklorism and a tendency toward popular kitsch on one hand, and on the other, the alleged lack of dramatic power in a composer who is an undisputed master of gentle, lyrical melodies—as if Rusalka were a symphonic poem with voices. Franz Welser-Möst and his Cleveland Orchestra have done away with this cliché once and for all.

The style suddenly becomes Wagnerian (not only in the trio of the forest nymphs, the Czech answer to the Rhinemaidens), as well as Puccinian: pure passion. No wonder that the Vienna Philharmonic looked askance at the Salzburg opera debut of their future music director at the Staatsoper, a debut given with the director’s American orchestra. And in fact, the Viennese (the strings excepted) must really pull themselves together if they are to achieve the massive yet transparent precision of their colleagues from Ohio. In the best operatic tradition, Welser-Möst unleashes waves of sound that carry the voices but never cover them. He seems to breathe together with his singers. Such organic naturalness in art and such sobriety in fervor are among the greatest virtues a conductor can possess.

From The International Herald Tribune
The issues raised at the symposium* seemed far removed during the premiere of "Rusalka." The choice of the Cleveland Orchestra for this opera ruffled some feathers at the Vienna Philharmonic, but there is plenty else in Salzburg to keep that stalwart organization busy. Not since 1992, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic played for Messiaen's "Saint François d'Assise," has an American orchestra occupied the pit for a Salzburg opera production. The residency is part of the Cleveland Orchestra's ongoing strategy to diversify beyond its home city, where its base of support has stagnated.

As a work, "Rusalka" has clearly captured Welser-Möst's imagination, and the orchestra played with a warmth and color that recalled its legendary Dvorak performances under George Szell. The tale of a mermaid enamored of a human prince, inspired in part by the Hans Christian Andersen story, has music of exquisite beauty in its simplicity, which Welser-Möst ensured sounded ravishing, but he also had the measure of the opera's theatricality. Based on the tumultuous reception he and the orchestra received, the Austrian conductor, who takes over as music director of the Vienna Staatsoper in 2010, remains ever popular in his native country.

*Franz and physicians from the Cleveland Clinic and McGill participated in a “Music and the Brain” symposium put on by the Salzburg Festival prior to the Rusalka premiere.

From The Financial Times
With Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, this year’s Salzburg Festival wins an 11th-hour reprieve from setting a new record for awfulness. Of the four other new productions this summer, two were a disgrace, one was an unfortunate flop and one was well-staged but horribly conducted. This is the first time that both direction and music have actually been good. What a relief!

At a press conference on the morning of the premiere, the intendant Jürgen Flimm admitted that the Vienna Philharmonic musicians had been put out at not getting this gig. Dvořák, they feel, is their territory. Under Franz Welser-Möst’s meticulous and moving direction, the Cleveland Orchestra, playing in the same pit that the Vienna Philharmonic had occupied a week earlier for Don Giovanni, proved just how much better it could sound than its Austrian counterpart.

Perhaps comparison is unfair. The Clevelanders are not a pit orchestra, and the Viennese players had to suffer Bertrand de Billy on the podium. Still, it made a pleasant change to hear musicians who cared so much about every note, and could create a sound so homogeneous and lovingly crafted. This was the Cleveland Orchestra’s first opera production in 20 years. They should not wait two decades until the next.

From Kurier
Rusalka is an opera of rare melodic richness, phenomenal orchestration, splendid symphonic moments and lyrical high points, with naturalistic sound painting and a sophisticated technique of leitmotifs. It is a musical masterpiece.

If, on top of all that, it is played as it was in Salzburg by The Cleveland Orchestra under its music director Franz Welser-Möst (who actually led his first operatic premiere at the Festival), then the work reveals all its beauty. It was a musical experience in resplendent sound colors, carried by a group of fantastic musicians, shaped with enormous precision and boasting some brilliant solo performances.

In Austria, we have rarely seen Franz Welser-Möst in such a romantic and emotional mood. The harmony with The Cleveland Orchestra, which had already performed this work in concert last June, seemed perfect.

From The Sunday Times
Even the Vienna Philharmonic, superb in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, were outclassed by the Clevelanders’ Rusalka, the most spellbinding account of Dvorak’s miraculous score I have heard, either in the theatre or on record. This was a revelation, at least in my appreciation of Welser-Möst. Here, he exorcised for ever the critical demons that have pursued him since his premature and ill-fated music directorship of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His attention to detail never sounded finicky, but was subsumed into a thought-through symphonic unfolding of this prodigiously tuneful and brilliantly orchestrated score, and he displayed a sympathy for Dvorak’s dramatic writing that I would never have expected from this sometimes placid musician. I doubt this music can be better played than by the Clevelanders, the most “European” of the American orchestras, with wind and brass soloists to die for and a string sound of superlative warmth and sensitivity. In the Mozart House, the singers had no need to yell, thanks above all to Welser-Möst’s ravishing control of dynamics.

Also from The Sunday Telegraph
More importantly, the playing of the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst is sumptuously beautiful and exquisitely detailed, allowing Dvorak's operatic masterpiece to weave a strong spell at its first-ever Salzburg showing. Indeed, the residency by the Clevelanders in Salzburg marks the climax of this festival. If any other orchestra can bring such gossamer strings or melting trumpet solos to this score, I've not heard it, yet Welser-Möst is not content to coast on sound alone. He emphasizes the muscularity of the music, making the marches that flare up all the more surreal, and never over-sentimentalizes it: Rusalka's famous 'Song to the Moon', as sung by the gleaming soprano of Camilla Nylund, is unusually introspective. Completing the musical triumph is Piotr Beczala's lyric-tenor Prince, ringingly clean and elegant of tone.

From Le Monde
Inspired Orchestra
In the pit, a marvel: the Cleveland Orchestra, in residence in Salzburg, full of sublime sonorities, stunningly conducted by Franz Welser Most, a conductor who makes no concessions, who is refined, dextrous and inspired from beginning to end. What a difference compared to the boring performance of the Vienna Philharmonic in Don Giovanni, which we heard the night before.

From Die Presse
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Issues of Quality: What Is A Real Festival Concert?
By Hugh Canning

A concert with a daring program by The Cleveland Orchestra in Salzburg raises some questions: Why and to what end do we put on festival concerts? There were probably many music lovers who couldn’t help but ask this question, both before=2 0and after the concert, exquisite in every respect, given by The Cleveland Orchestra under its music director Franz Welser-Möst. During the concert itself, it was hardly possible to reflect on such matters, for at that time, the most compelling music-making was taking place, technically flawless (aside from minimal blips in the horns) and subtly nuanced in every register. Welser-Möst, who otherwise often comes across as cool, had a positively extroverted day, with an enormous emphasis on expression; he shaped the dynamic and coloristic gradations with great love and turned them into virtuoso balancing acts. The conductor opted for brisk if not breakneck tempi, averting all danger of kitsch in a work as frequently performed as Dvořák’s New World Symphony. In other words, this was a festival-ready production: a world-class orchestra shed new light on a classic.

One learns from operatic experience
The fact that The Cleveland Orchestra had just made its Salzburg debut as an opera orchestra had certainly played a part in making this concert an event. After playing the nature sounds at the beginning of Rusalka with the true feeling of a Bohemian fairy-tale, the woodwinds approached their first entrances in the Ninth Symphony differently—they had gained a deeper understanding for the soil from which this music grew. All of a sudden, these musicians “From the New World” conjured up sounds directly from the Central European tradition. Dvořák’s20Symphony is, in fact, hardly American except, at best, for the odd musical detail.

From the same knowledge of musical roots sprang the interpretations of works by Béla Bartók and Alban Berg in the second half of the concert. Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto was written, like the Dvořák, in the United States; yet, the work of an exile during World War II, it is filled with longing for the lost language, and for nature sounds as well: in the central Adagio, birdsong becomes the carrier of a transcendent message, as if the composer had had the premonition that he wouldn’t live to see, in real life, the innocence and the freedom conjured up in this music. Mitsuko Uchida’s playing, clear as a woodcut, left the roundness of the sound to the Clevelanders; in her dialog with the orchestral soloists, she found a touchingly aloof, enraptured sound which dissolved in a fragrant, playful lightness in the finale. Soloist and orchestra achieved great freedom and assurance in the attacks, throwing off all earthiness and reaching interpretive depths otherwise reserved, at best, for Mozart’s piano concertos.

It was a festival performance, from this point of view as well: it integrated music that still counts as “modern” and made it sound as though it had long since become part of the common vocabulary. That is what made the last item on the program a sensation at the Grosses Festspielhaus. Alban Berg’s Three Or chestral Pieces, op. 6, are still terra incognita because of their immense technical demands. They have to be studied anew every time, if at all, in a painstaking rehearsal process, in the course of which one seems to become more and more assured, and gradually deciphers the tangle of this incredibly complex, almost impenetrable score. Yet the truth—the spontaneous realization by the audience that Berg picked up where Mahler had left off in his Sixth—usually remains concealed behind the veil of lacking obviousness in the connection. As long as the musicians don’t really understand the relationships among the complicated voices, there can be no question of any direct effect on the listener.

Enter the Clevelanders and Welser-Möst. In a true act of provocation by programming, they placed the Berg pieces at the end of their concert, and the traditional warhorse, Dvořák’s Ninth, at the beginning. And this bold challenge of listening conventions was followed by action. We have never heard the Berg pieces played with such transparence and such scrupulous attention to detail. As in the Dvořák symphony, the musicians showed inexhaustible diversity in their articulation. The expressive quality of the music became apparent in the central “Reigen” movement, where fragile fragments of Viennese waltzes merged with fanfares forebodingly irrupting from the distance; in the concluding March, the world marched into destruction, abandoning all memories of a fascinatingly deca dent artistic experience. In Welser-Möst’s hands all this became a breath-taking theater of sound. It takes courage to place apocalyptic music, written just before World War I, at the end of a festival program. The illustrious audience seemed impressed, but also irritated, by the final chord with its shattering hammerstroke. Berg’s music may be more disturbing than ever, especially when its “beautiful passages” are realized in such a fragile and magical way as they were on this evening.

Who wants to hear avant-garde in sound?
Which brings us back to the question posed at the beginning. The noble goals of a festival have been fulfilled, the inclusion of neglected but significant parts of the historical repertory is guaranteed by the highest level of playing. At best, one can also hear the explosiveness of familiar works such as the “Jupiter” Symphony, the “Eroica” or Dvořák’s New World when they are cleansed of the encrustations of our mindless Muzak aesthetic.

Yet only the box office can tell whether the audience will really be willing, in the long run, to go along with the above-mentioned noble goals and accept them as part of its legitimate wish for an enjoyable listening experience. If Giuseppe Verdi is to be believed, the matter of success or failure is decided by ticket sales alone.

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