This past week my wife and I drove to Cleveland to visit family for
Thanksgiving, and while there, we--in the company of my sister, my oldest
nephew, and his three lovely daughters--attended a sold-out Cleveland
Orchestra concert. It featured Mitsuko Uchida as conductor and pianist
in an all-Mozart program: Piano concertos No. 8 (C major) and 24 (C
minor) plus the Divertimento in B-flat major K. 137, one of the "Salzburg
Symphonies." Although I was familiar with these works, and have been
attending concerts for over half a century (ever since that same sister
took me to my first one), I saw and heard a number of things for the
first time. Some of them might be of interest to others.
First, the venue. Severance Hall is the most beautiful concert hall I
have ever seen. Seventy five years old, It is particularly resplendent
since its $36 million renovation five years ago. Not sure how it was
before that--never went there before--but right now it gleams. The
ceiling is covered with a striking but not obtrusive lotus and papyrus
pattern, the style of which comes closer to art nouveau than anything.
Of strictly musical relevance is the stage floor, with wooden planking
and built-in risers the like of which I have never seen. In the rear
of the stage is a high sloped portion adequate to accommodate an entire
large chorus without any need to place the usual grandstand type seats.
(Not sure what is actually done, but I will come back to something about
standing performers.) On this occasion, the timpani and brass were there.
In front of this, a couple of other wall-to-wall wooden-plank risers can
hold many other musicians when called for.
Next, the seating--and standing--arrangements. (All new to me.) The
middle work on the program, though the first composed, the divertimento,
was played--extremely well--by about 28 string players without a conductor.
All stood throughout (except the cellists) with no other chairs in
evidence. For the concertos, the piano, without its lid, was center
stage, pointing to the rear so that the pianist-conductor faced the
players. The violins were divided, with the cellos and basses behind
the first violins and the violas behind the second violins on the right.
Winds and brass were in the usual center location behind the piano.
Performance practice: Concerto #8 was played by 22 players and concerto
#24 by 44 players. The divertimento took on half a dozen players following
the first piece. The difference in the playing between the first and
second half of the program was equally great as the difference in forces.
The performances of the early works was light and lively, in the style
galant manner. The C minor concerto, K. 491, one of my favorite piano
concertos (even though Mozart is not one of my favorite composers these
days), was performed powerfully with slower tempos. Some might be tempted
to say that the performance verged on the romantic; the tempos were
certainly slower than in a recorded Szell performance of another late
Mozart concerto, but in any case, Uchida's choices were perfectly suited
to my taste.
Uchida has been artist-in-residence with the Cleveland Orchestra since
2002. She made her Cleveland debut in 1990 and her Cleveland conducting
debut in 1998. In April of this year she began a multi-year cycle of
Mozart Concertos in which she conducts from the keyboard, and she is
already on the seventh installment. (She has already recorded all the
Mozart piano concertos and sonatas.) The sold-out house, the immediate
and enthusiastic standing ovation at the end, and the players' refusal
to stand at one point, eliciting a shrug from her, says more about the
quality of her performances than I can find words for. I will try to
describe my impressions of her instead. Her first downbeat--with both
arms without a baton and without a score, but standing--was strong. By
the end of the last piece, during the passages for the orchestra alone,
she stood and appeared to pluck the music out of the air. I once had
occasion to note the suppleness of Carl Maria Giulini's left hand, during
the Eroica, but I have never seen anything like this before. Uchida,
both strong and supple in her movements, was like a magical creature.
Her extraordinary diaphanous and colorful silk garments, which my wife
is certain she must have designed herself, added to this impression. In
any event, I will gladly attend her concerts any time, and would cheerfully
invest in more of her recordings than I have.