An engaging new score, a worthy performance of a Mahler symphony and a keyboard star turn highlighted the Cleveland Orchestra’s final program of its Miami season Thursday night.
Making his final appearances as principal guest conductor for the Clevelanders’ Miami residency, Giancarlo Guerrero had one of his strongest outings on the podium to date. (Guerrero will return to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra’s opening Miami program next November.)
The Arsht Center commissioned a world premiere by Israeli composer Avner Dorman to celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary as well as the first decade of the Cleveland residency. The resulting work, Siklòn, is skillfully conceived and considerably more artful than many contemporary fanfare-oriented concert openers.
Siklòn is the Haitian Creole word for “cyclone” or “hurricane,” and the composer views the storms that threaten the Miami landscape as a metaphor for the area’s mixing and clashing of cultures. Rhythm is central to Dorman’s music, and the score’s busy opening pages are bursting with pounding exuberance. A veritable gumbo of styles with hints of klezmer and jazz appears during the work’s breezy eight minutes. Like many other present-day composers, Dorman gives an important role to mallet percussion, and the xylophone and marimba are also highly prominent throughout the score. A brass chorale over tinkling percussion makes for a celebratory conclusion.
Siklòn played to Guerrero’s penchant for instrumental color and gave the orchestra a real workout. The premiere proved an instant hit, and the score was enthusiastically cheered by the audience.
Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major is an unabashed showpiece, but Jean-Yves Thibaudet managed to infuse his performance with elegance and restraint. To be sure, Thibaudet could play Liszt’s knuckle-busting passages with thunderous aplomb and accuracy, but he managed to avoid blatant vulgarity.
Thibaudet’s soft playing at the keyboard’s initial entrance set the tone for the performance. In the quiet sections, the French pianist displayed a delicate touch and molded the melodic contours with great subtlety. Guerrero’s taut pacing underscored a performance that benefited by underplaying Liszt’s bombast.
In his five seasons as Cleveland’s principal Miami guest conductor, Guerrero has excelled at colorful orchestral works, leading brilliant performances of such scores as Holst’s The Planets and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome. In major symphonies, however, his work has been highly uneven.
On Thursday night, Guerrero rose to the occasion for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, directing an effective and satisfying reading. This was not the kind of revelatory Mahler that Michael Tilson Thomas routinely delivers at the New World Symphony; nor was it on the same level as the wrenching realization of the Symphony No. 6 that the Cleveland ensemble played last season under Franz Welser-Möst.
Still Guerrero got most of the symphony’s major bullet points right. The first movement’s changes of mood and meter were organically achieved. Swaying and almost dancing on the podium, he captured the wonderful Viennese hesitations in the central section of the second movement Landler. Maximilian Dimoff’s bass solo in the Frère Jacques melody of the third movement was full and rich. The klezmer style melodies were given appropriate verve, with the ensemble sounding like a symphonic village band.
The shattering opening of the finale emerged with blazing impact. Throughout the movement, Guerrero expertly coordinated the shifting moods from tempestuous to nostalgic. With the eight horns standing and the orchestra’s firepower in full force, there was plenty of heft and strength in the symphony’s climactic coda.
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