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A chance to listen anew

Franz Welser-Most and Cleveland Orchestra coax new sounds from familiar works by Dvorak and Bartok.

June 10, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The fabled Cleveland Orchestra -- king of American orchestras -- has finally returned to Southern California after a 14-year absence and for the first time under Franz Welser-Most, who became its music director in 2002.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center got it first, in a Dvorak/Bartok program Wednesday night before the orchestra moved on to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night and then northward for the Ojai Music Festival this weekend. It's amusing to think of this refined, precision musical machine playing tonight in the rickety outdoor Libbey Bowl. Amusing, perhaps, but not incongruous. At least not under Welser-Most.

Austrian, at 44 still young for his distinguished position (one of the most prestigious in the business), boyishly handsome if more in a scholarly than a glamorous way, Welser-Most is a most gracious, unpretentious conductor with a questing mind. He has brought community outreach and probing programming to Cleveland (especially in championing European modernists and avant-gardists who have a hard time getting played in America), but he has been controversial for other reasons.

Welser-Most is no stranger to a hostile press. British critics crucified him in the '90s when he was music director of the London Philharmonic. But many have warmed to him since.

The odd thing about Welser-Most is that he seems, at first glance, a likably straightforward, warm, capable, engaging conductor. His stick technique is clear. He can be vigorous. He has a deeply ingrained lyrical streak. He appears musical to the core. He inspires confidence. Yet the performances are not conventional, and many people I know have gone back and forth in their feelings about his conducting.

For the first of his touring programs, he led performances of Dvorak's seldom heard but irresistibly tuneful Fifth Symphony and of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra that were uncontroversial in at least one sense. He takes his responsibility as caretaker of one of the world's three or four greatest orchestras seriously. The tightness of ensemble, the depth of playing in every section (what's to say about those violas but "wow"?), the transparency of textures, the athletically smooth muscle of not just brass and percussion but even the delicate harp was all there to hear and savor despite Segerstrom's desiccated acoustic (how enticing that half-built new hall across the way is beginning to look).

Yet neither Dvorak nor Bartok came out sounding quite the way one is used to. Welser-Most can drive the orchestra hard and he can relax in and relish its sweetness, but there is always a kind of restlessness to his performances. His rhythms have a lilt. He seductively anticipates or hesitates after the beat. These are fraction-of-a-second anticipations and hesitations, but they lead to a complex, fluid, grainy sound.

I was continually taken aback by his Dvorak, by the stridency in the first and last movements and by his ability to make the winds steely when I thought the Czech way would be to make them burble. Welser-Most saw an urban Dvorak where I always heard a pastoral one, and vice versa.

Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, likewise, lacked the crystalline surface, the illumination of tone and structure, that one associates with this music. Welser-Most was not showing off the orchestra; he let the sound thicken, clot. The concerto's middle movement, an elegy with its weird sound effects and big tune, became haunted-sounding. The fugue at the end, based on a near-jazz riff, wasn't jazzy but something else.

What else? I'm still trying to figure it out. It had more of a folk quality, but not Hungarian exactly. The frenzied strings that accompanied it became ethereal, of another planet. This most popular, accessible and familiar of Bartok's major orchestral scores was still accessible, still popular (if the audience's enthusiasm for it and the wonderful playing was any indication), but it wasn't familiar. It wasn't explicable.

That's what keeps people wondering about Welser-Most. And for those who don't like to wonder when they hear a great orchestra play familiar music, he can be, I suppose, alienating. New tastes often are -- until you start to crave them.

Cleveland, I gather, is not an economically healthy city, but the Cleveland Orchestra seems to have a new lease on life. Welser-Most's contract has been extended through 2012, and I'm betting that he will eventually help the city feel better about itself.


Cleveland Orchestra

Where: Libbey Bowl, Signal Street and East Ojai Avenue, Ojai

When: 8 tonight

Price: $15 to $80

Contact: (805) 646-2053 or

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