By Lawrence Budmen

The annual South Florida residency of the Cleveland Orchestra has become an artistic highpoint of the cultural season. This year, however, tense contract negotiations threatened to derail this great ensemble's Miami visit. Following a one day musicians' strike, late night negotiating sessions finally produced a settlement. The orchestra's visit to the Indiana University School of Music (in Bloomington, Indiana) had to be cancelled but the Florida concerts and educational and community events were saved.

At the orchestra's first Miami concert (January 22, 2010), Leila Josefowicz took top honors with a stunning performance of Thomas Ades' remarkable Violin Concerto but music director Franz Welser-Most was far from marginalized. He contributed a solid Strauss Don Juan and richly Viennese rendition of Brahms' Symphony No.2 as well as a generous encore - Beethoven's Leonore Overture No.3. The playing of America's most classical orchestra was in a class of its own.

The Clevelanders' second program on January 29, 2010 at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall in Miami, Florida, USA opened on a less stirring note. Verdi's Overture to La Forza del Destino was beautifully played but lacked Italianate fire and passion. Welser-Most elicited much subtle phrasing and delicate instrumental felicities but the incendiary operatic drama that propels this music received short thrift.

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety) formed the program's centerpiece. One of this American icon's most ambitious works, this 1947-49 symphonic translation of W.H. Auden's poem fuses Bernstein's lifelong immersion in jazz and American vernacular culture with deeply angst ridden orchestral paragraphs, evoking Shostakovich and Mahler - two composers that Bernstein the conductor championed. The symphony can often emerge as sprawling and uneven in mundane, incoherent performances.

While one would not normally associate the Austrian born Welser-Most with this piece, he led a masterful performance. His emotionally charged, intense traversal of this symphonic epic gave equal weight to the brooding melancholy (indeed pessimism) and wild, jazzy explosiveness that were the ever present opposites of Bernstein's artistic personality.

The composer cast the solo piano as protagonist, bringing a personal voice to the larger orchestral tapestry. In the symphony's 1949 premiere in Boston under Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein was the keyboard soloist. He subsequently recorded the score several times with Lukas Foss, Phillippe Entremont and Krystian Zimerman in the solo role. Ideally this score requires a formidable virtuoso. (Last summer Orli Shaham gave a brilliant realization of the piano line at Tanglewood in an otherwise lackluster reading by the Boston Symphony under David Robertson.)

The Cleveland Orchestra's long time principal keyboard artist Joela Jones is a capable, efficient orchestral player. (A native of Miami, Jones lists Ernst von Dohnanyi, Edward Kilenyi, Victor Babin and Arthur Loesser among her teachers.) Her tone was not particularly large, her digital dexterity less than bravura. Nevertheless Jones is a fine musician who understands the romantic yearning and agitated nervousness at the heart of Bernstein's symphonic drama. She captured the large scale contours of this complex symphonic drama.

Welser-Most's grasp of the piece's grand scale architecture was truly impressive. There was expressive line and unfolding drama as the music moved from superficial frivolity to sadness to an ultimate expression of faith - one of Bernstein's continuing compositional threads. From the eloquently stated clarinet introduction to the bluesy dirge and jazz driven percussive accompaniment to the Masque section and the final entry of the solo trumpet as the music builds to an inexorable climax, Welser-Most channeled the score's moody juxtapositions into a moving, broadly phrased orchestral proclamation - a unique synthesis of symphony, concerto and tone poem that could only have been created by Bernstein. The dark, rich depth of tone and rhythmic precision of the Cleveland strings (led by concertmaster William Preucil) was particularly impressive.

By contrast, Welser-Most led a brisk, tautly conceived performance of Beethoven's Symphony No.3 in E-flat Major (Eroica), one of the monuments of the symphonic literature. Like many Beethoven conductors of the post Roger Norington era, Welser-Most emphasized light textures and incisive rhythms for a modernist view of this history making score. He did not allow the Marcia funebre (second movement) to become diffuse. The conductor's insistent beat embraced the darkness and ceremonial richness of this seminal movement. A light weight scherzo and lithe, brightly accented finale with a sharply characterized set of variations capped an exhilarating performance. Despite a brief horn problem in the finale (probably due more to this most unreliable of instruments rather than the player), the Cleveland ensemble was in top form, playing with terrific precision and instrumental mastery. An enthusiastic audience rewarded conductor and orchestra with four curtain calls. The Clevelanders' Miami residency continues in March.

The Cleveland Orchestra returns to the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida, USA on March 26 and 27, 2010 with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Nocturne from Chopiniana (arranged by Glazunov), Prokofiev's Suite from Romeo and Juliet and Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2 (with soloist Ingrid Fliter). For information see


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