A trio of splendid Cleveland Orchestra Miami concerts

In its first three performances of 2017—two subscription concerts, along with a special, one-night-only event—the Cleveland Orchestra Miami offered programming that lived up to the orchestra’s sterling reputation. The Knight Arts grantee kicked off the year by pairing Johann Sebastian Bach and Anton Bruckner, followed by a Nordic night consisting of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony, and then hosting star soloist Yo-Yo Ma—a trio of high-caliber events that signaled the orchestra’s intention to reach still higher this time around during its winter residency in the Magic City.

Bringing together Bach and Bruckner was novel. On this night, the orchestra also joined with Seraphic Fire, the distinguished Knight Arts Challenge winner and local vocal ensemble celebrating its 15th anniversary, to bring together two different audiences to the benefit of both. For this occasion, the choir consisted of 25 voices (it’s usually 12), set behind the Clevelanders, under the direction of Franz Welser-Most. While the set-up was visually appealing, the arrangement tended to overshadow the voices.

Bach’s Cantata 34, “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe,” was the core of the first half of the program, which also included “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” from Cantata 191 and “Wir danken dir, Gott, Wir danken dir” from Cantata 29. Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano adeptly performed the aria “Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten dir,” and Seraphic Fire was beyond reproach, with bass John Bass and tenor Stephen Soph in particular standing out. The pairing between the orchestra and the chorale was a joyful concept that should bear fruit in future seasons. There is much material and possibilities for the two groups to explore together.

Next to his Symphony No. 4 (the “Romantic” Symphony), Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 is the best known of the nine symphonies by the solemn Austrian, and Welser-Most did his duty for a fellow countryman (both hail from Linz) during this Miami performance. The No. 7, with its baggage of shadows and lights (and, in the first movement, a melody that dangerously evokes “Evita”), fits like a glove with the elegance and sumptuousness of the Clevelanders, especially the strings, led by the venerable William Preucil. It was a splendid version, flawless from a technical perspective.

The famous “Adagio,” perhaps the most transcendent piece in Bruckner’s oeuvre, took on an unforgettable clarity that set aside what are believed to be fateful references to the most terrible hours of the 20th century. Instead, the work was transformed into a pastoral song, more optimistic, without the usual emotional weight, with Welser-Most in absolute control of the tone and transitions. For those used to a flashier and more temperamental Symphony No. 7, there was a certain lack of emotion and depth; nevertheless, it was one of the best concerts offered by the orchestra. Here is to more of it, and soon.

The orchestra’s next concert also offered a notable program, and a performance that was even better than the first. The ace up organizers’ sleeve was a stellar soloist: Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider. The eminent performer is remembered by many in the community for his exceptional Johannes Brahms rendition with the orchestra in one of its early seasons in South Florida; for his return, Znaider offered a piece he champions and knows better than virtually anyone, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto Op. 33This piece by Denmark’s greatest composer presents a challenge for both performer and audience. It’s long and multifaceted, and its three cadenzas—yes, three—require from the soloist a superhuman effort and a chameleon-like talent to adapt in each movement. The Znaider touch was noticeable in the exquisite serenity of the “Largo,” and in capturing the distinct identity of each movement.

While the piece does not reach the level of works by preceding masters such as Sibelius, Max Bruch or Felix Mendelssohn, it deserved to be included in the season—especially given the availability of an artist of such stature as Znaider. It was a superb introduction to the piece framed, very successfully, by orchestra and director.

That same night, the orchestra continued with Sibelius’ Symphony No 2, which is more popular even than Nielsen’s. The strings—without the breathtaking drama of a Leonard Bernstein performance or the visionary outlook of the legendary John Barbirolli—caressed the first movement with the delicate touch of a summer breeze. That’s how it felt in the superb acoustics of Knight Concert Hall. The strings had a unique silkiness throughout the symphony, in perfect rivalry and accord with metals, brass and other instruments.

In these kinds of works, the Cleveland Orchestra suggests a machine, shaped by the likes of fabled conductors such as George Szell and Christoph von Dohnanyi. Welser-Most was skilled at building to a climax, leaving for the end a resolution less spectacular than usual, but possessing a freshness and lightness that were indisputable.

The final of the three performances, the gala concert, was the briefest and also the best attended due to the presence of Yo-Yo Ma. There were many first timers who applauded between movements to the pleasure of the smiling soloist. After the dizzying overture of Bedrich Smetana’s “The Bartered Wife,” the program continued in Central Europe with the beautiful Cello Concerto by Antonin Dvorak, a Ma favorite. He dazzled with his impeccable execution, full of passion and Central European varnish. Responding to the applause, Ma played Dvorak’s “Silent Woods,” in the same spirit and with the same level of perfection.

After greeting the audience alongside Ma—who surprised him by taking him by the arms and having him waltz, a gesture that elicited laughter from the audience and even the serious director—Welser-Most closed the celebration with a colorful “Capriccio Italien” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It wasn’t the best choice of the evening, but it was the most festive to close the gala.

Orchestra and director return March 24 and 25 to close their winter residency with a luminous Italian program including Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, plus compositions by Giuseppe Verdi and Ottorino Respighi.

Sebastian Spreng is a visual artist and freelance arts writer. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sebastianspreng.