Saturday, February 11, 2023

Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

“My music is a reflection of my dreams. I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colours that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colours floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture. Its beauty is very abstract and remote, but it is for these very qualities that it addresses the emotions and can communicate joy and warmth” (2003). Unsuk Chin’s “chameleonic” concerto for orchestra, SPIRA – a high-profile commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, CBSO, Orchestre de Paris, NDR Elbphilarmonie and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic – was first performed under Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla in Los Angeles in April 2019.

Her programme note partly prepares us for what we might expect though not necessarily experience individually or collectively. “The orchestra,” she says, “can be presented as one entity, a ‘super-orchestra’, but also in various chamber-like combinations [through which] one can also highlight a certain section or even single musicians as soloists. Another major influence was the biological process of growth and metamorphosis, with complex material evolving from simple germ motives in unexpected ways. SPIRA, the title of the work, is derived from the concept of the self-similar spiral curve (also called ‘growth spiral’), which was nicknamed Spira mirabilis (‘the marvellous spiral’) by the seventeenth century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli. In this case, the resonance of the vibraphone constituted the sonic ‘ur-cell’, calling forth manifold colours and intricate textures, as if zooming in with a microscope to research the inner life of sound, on the molecular level, and uncover previously invisible structures … The resonance of the two vibraphones runs through the whole work as a kind of ‘halo’, but it constantly varies in detail, which results in complex interferences and changing rhythmic patterns. At some point, this concept is taken over by the string section in a magnified guise, fluctuating between consonant harmony and extreme tone clusters. This simple idea forms the basis of the work whose structure grows from the conflict and interaction between the underlying ‘ur-cell’ and the reactions of other groups of instruments, with the music constantly changing in terms of density, colour, character, and pulse, shifting between chaos and order, activity and repose. The work can be perceived in a multitude of ways from different angles: while it may seem volatile on the level of details, it is highly goal-directed and linear in terms of the grand structure.” A universalist, Chin is a composer open to all cultures, styles, and sound worlds. Growing up in Seoul, she “apprenticed” herself to Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. In Hamburg she studied with Ligeti. Anything from canons to gamelan to electronic music, the medievalists to Golden Section Bartók and stochastic Xenakis, stimulates her imagination and fantasy. Privately she plays Scarlatti and Chopin.

SPIRA reminds of something Paul Griffiths wrote in 2012. “Music for her is amazement and play, and communication that can be tender or fizzing: wild worlds without words (or with them).” Like a comet orbiting time beyond mortal reference, it comes hazily into focus, stays a short while, then fades, all the while with a molten heart of wheeling, spinning activity, innumerable variations, nuances and offshoots of sound and rhythm tumbling kaleidoscopically. It’s a work of pools and tides, shadow and light, spears of ice and flame, here (intensely) poetic, there (viscerally) virtuosic When it’s voiced, illumined, painted, lived whatever it has to, it stops, neither too soon nor too late – at least for me. Mirga’s premiere ran just short of 19 minutes. Klaus Mäkelä, immersed from the onset, took around a minute less, Franz Welser-Möst’s finely honed Clevelanders responding with alacrity and class, the large percussion section especially so.

Frowning intensity, visual exultation, clenched left hand, emphatically gestured downbeats is all the showmanship you’ll get from Mäkelä. I’ve heard and watched plenty of Mahler Fives more physically wrought, more nakedly dramatised. Maazel and Mehta visibly triumphing their baton skills in negotiating the final movement’s trickier corners and ensembles was always something special. Bernstein’s iconic fervour, body and soul wracked, every sinew and gland intoxicated by each note, pause and cadence, swept the field away. He redefined hyperbole. Tennstedt was of yet another spiritual order. Durationally (including movement gaps) this performance, at seventy-two minutes, erred between the extremes of Bruno Walter’s sixty-two and Haitink’s eighty, settling around the Abbado/Jansons mark, while conceptually it’s paragraphing veered towards Karajan/Shipway/Barbirolli/Horenstein’s spaciousness. Detailing, quality of tone, balancing of texture and dynamics impressed generally, the unanimity of the Cleveland Orchestra, its individual and corporate strengths in all departments (but particularly outstanding brass and strings, seasoned players at the helm) commanding admiration. Interpretatively, three aspects stood out. The sustained funeral march tension of the first movement. The languorously drawn out scenic painting of the more Viennese, terpsichorean episodes, affection uppermost, each like old casements opening onto märchen landscapes. The Adagietto. In Mäkelä’s hands a suspended, caressingly sincere, very private love letter. “In which way I love you, my sun, I cannot tell you with words. Only my longing, my love and my bliss can I with anguish declare”. Ten-and-a-half minutes in the unfolding, undeniably beautiful and affecting, the sheen of the orchestra (lower strings and harp gloriously weighted) and the period detail of the 1930s hall and its ceiling melding in mystic harmony. Come the flight and fable, the inexorable Jovian polyphony of the Finale, standing ovation.