Preview: the legendary Cleveland Orchestra returns to China after 21 years

This time the venues are better, the audiences wiser, but the orchestral sound remains the same

Photo: Roger Mastroianni
Of the American orchestras in the legendary ‘Big Five’, Cleveland is the quiet, unassuming one. Unlike its counterparts in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Boston, this heartland band is the only cultural icon in town, but its stratospheric international rankings transcend the local fan base – even The New York Times admitted last year they might be the country’s best. Under Franz Welser-Möst, this month they return to China, 21 years after their first visit.

The Cleveland Orchestra was forged in fire – or at least, in fiery personalities. Former music director Artur Rodziński carried his lucky pistol everywhere he went. Another, George Szell, led a purported ‘reign of terror’ that saw musicians fleeing (or seeking therapy) in droves, but that instilled the discipline, unity and clarity of sound the group retains today.

Back in 1978, the Cleveland Orchestra played Shanghai's Luwan Gymnasium, a venue better suited to basketball than classical music – noted critic Donald Rosenberg called it 'wretched for acoustics', and remarked that
 car horns and beepers could be heard throughout the concert. This time, playing in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing, the venues are better, the audiences wiser, but the orchestral sound remains the same.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5 in E at, 'Emperor' (with Strauss' Ein Heldenleben)

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Daniil Trifonov. Photo: 247tickets

Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat, otherwise known as the Emperor Concerto, was Beethoven’s last piece in the genre, possibly because of his accelerating deafness. He begins the piece with a piano solo (unusual at the time) and then shifts between martial grandeur, exquisite trills, flourishes and cascades, intricate rhythms,
and lyrical sweetness – written under bombardment.

'Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort!' wrote the composer in 1890, describing Napoleon’s assault on Vienna – which drove Beethoven to hide out in his brother’s basement and cover his head with pillows. But this seminal work may be the pinnacle of the composer’s ‘heroic’ style. Manifestly difficult to the pianist (here, Daniil Trifonov), the nickname possibly hails from one of Napoleon’s officers stationed in Vienna, who called it ‘an emperor of a concerto’.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony (with Prokofiev's Symphony No 3)

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Franz Welser-Möst. Photo: 247tickets

All creatives have blocks, but Tchaikovsky’s compositional struggles with his fifth symphony approach mania – or at least a tortured existence. In letters to his patron, he complains that ‘the urge to create has deserted [him],’ and that he was ‘squeezing a symphony out of [his] dulled brain.' Sadly, his critics agreed: one reviewer said the finale sounded like ‘a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy’. But opinion soon shifted; even Tchaikovsky came around.

After saying ‘it is a failure; there is something repellant, something superfluous and insincere that the public instinctively recognises,’ he later wrote ‘I like it far better now.’ Faint praise indeed. But during World War II the piece’s popularity soared; its theme of ‘ultimate victory through strife’ appealed to the beleaguered audiences. To lift morale, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra played the symphony during the city’s 900-day siege in 1941, and even as the bombs began dropping nearby, the musicians never missed a note. Vindication comes in all forms.

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