Deservedly or not, for many, Cleveland is synonymous with urban blight and industrial decay. Yet for followers of symphonic music-making, it may be one of the most attractive cities in the country.
Certainly the Cleveland Orchestra is about as persuasive a cultural advocate as a city can have. The often heated comparison of major orchestras has always been rather artificial, relying as it does on recorded evidence. But the Clevelanders clearly belong among the elite.
The orchestra's first local performances under music director Christoph von Dohnanyi came last week with three concerts in the Los Angeles area. Sunday afternoon, the Clevelanders' Western tour ended at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
With a 1 p.m. start and a concert at UCLA the previous night, Dohnanyi and his players must have had little time to acquaint themselves with the lively, quirky acoustics of Segerstrom Hall. There was some thickening of otherwise transparent textures, but for the most, orchestra and hall interacted positively.
Orchestra and audience was another matter. After the first movement of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony, the large crowd burst into loud applause, which Dohnanyi made a vain effort to wave off. A beeping electronic alarm emanating from the front of the house obliterated the quiet close of the second movement, and when thunderous applause returned after the third, Dohnanyi launched the Finale before the clapping stopped. Then, with the last chord still sounding and Dohnanyi's hands still poised in the air, early applause killed it as well.
The "Pathetique" is a powerful original, and its movements create a sum that is greater than the parts. Dohnanyi treated it with the perfect measure of indulgence, taking the pathos of the outer movements seriously, without excess but also with no false restraints. The second movement produced the full measure of its odd 5/4 charm, and the third thundered triumphantly.
The orchestra's sound was that of exceptionally majestic chamber music. There was a richness and sheen that did not give way in the loudest climaxes, nor lose focus at the soft end. Individual lines could be clearly heard, without compromising the integrity of the whole.
Ibert's pungent, polyphonic Symphonie Concertante for oboe and strings was an odd choice for a solo vehicle. It sends away half the orchestra, yet does not vaunt the soloist either. Cleveland principal John Mack's evenly modulated playing was largely part of an essentially chamber music concept, although he did have cadenzas to display his fluent abilities.
A bright, sweeping performance of Berlioz's "Beatrice et Benedict" overture began the concert.