Last night was my regular subscription concert night at Severance Hall. It was “second string night”–the conductor was Steven Smith, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, and several of the principal players were absent. It was, however, a somewhat unusual and interesting program. They began with Stravinsky’s “Jeu de cartes” from 1937, which was last performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1964 with the composer conducting. It is the usual Stravinskyian thing of lots of spinning of wheels and bouncing around, but never really getting anywhere. The beginning was rough, but once conductor and orchestra settled into their groove, it was quite enjoyable.

The concerto for the evening was Prokofiev’s second piano concerto with Garrick Ohlsson as the soloist. Despite being such a famous piece, I’d never heard it before. It is stupendous in about every respect–orchestration, rhythm, texture, virtuosity for soloist and orchestra. It ranks up there with the Other Russian Work, “Sacre du Printemps,” which pre-dates this concerto only by a couple of years. Ohlsson was remarkable. Even from my perch at the top of the Severance Hall balcony I could watch his huge hands. I’m still not sure how he played some of those passages.

After intermission the orchestra played Charles Ives’s “Set for Theater Orchestra.” This was the first time the orchestra had performed the piece. It’s only eight minutes, in three short movements. The second movement is a riff on a movement from one of Ives’s piano sonatas (basically, a second piano concerto for the evening, but this time with Joela Jones as the soloist), and the third movement is slow-moving and ethereal.

The program closed with a very average performance of Beethoven’s eighth symphony. The Cleveland Orchestra could play this music blindfolded and without a conductor. So the most one could say is that Maestro Smith didn’t get in the way.

Next week’s program ought to also be good: Messiaen’s “Turangalila-Symphonie” with Franz Welser-Möst conducting.

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