Founded in 1980 by composer/conductor Edwin London, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony has commissioned and performed a huge range of new American music, as well as the European works featured on the sixth disc of a retrospective celebrating the ensemble’s flexible, fervent, and extremely polished musicianship. Although the Messiaen, Ligeti, and Shostakovich selections are well served on disc, the present performances are thoroughly competitive. More importantly, they convey a true and vivid sense of how the instruments are positioned on stage and how audience members perceive the orchestral image from an ideal seat in the house, with absolutely no compromise in detail or dynamics.
For example, soloist Angelin Chang’s rich, penetrating piano tone meshes gorgeously with the low string pizzicatos at the Shostakovich concerto’s outset. Listen also to how the zany solo trumpet rejoinders take on a more majestic effect than usual when heard from a proper within-the-orchestra perspective as opposed to being spot-miked. (Who is the uncredited trumpeter?) And for all of Chang’s extroverted, deadly accurate virtuosity, she plays this work as music first, showpiece second.
Chang’s prodigious control of dynamics and nuances stand out in the Messaien, along with effortlessly integrated winds and percussion that define the kind of ensemble synchronicity that jazz musicians call “in the pocket”. The same holds true for Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, where you almost could take dictation from the Corrente’s slow, sustained cluster sonorities; and notice how the third movement’s rapid repeated notes pass from player to player and section to section in ways that make it seem that the players know their colleagues’ parts as well as their own.
Fortunately Romanian composer Liviu Danceanu holds his own in such august creative company. His Chinonic for Chamber Orchestra opens with jagged, chattering folk-inspired melodies (supported by percussive window dressing) that grow increasingly frantic and dissonant as the instrumental forces pile up. Several loud chords provide unexpected signposts (about two-and-a-half minutes into the piece there’s a really big B-flat-seventh raspberry!), and the instrumentalists also are called upon to make non-verbal vocal noises. I would bet that the conductors (Edwin London in the Danceanu, Alexander Mickelthwate in the Ligeti, and the remainder with John McLaughlin Williams) used their rehearsal time with all the efficiency and exactitude they could muster, and that’s a compliment. In all, this is a release that in every way equals its distinguished American-music-based predecessors in this important series. [4/6/2007]