Cleveland at the KenCen

The Cleveland Orchestra paid a rare but welcome visit to the Kennedy Center Sunday afternoon in a Washington Performing Arts Society concert featuring works by Dvorak, Mozart and Debussy. The appearance marked the orchestra’s first here under the baton of current music director Franz Welser-Most.

This critic grew up attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts directed by the legendary George Szell, who developed the ensemble’s signature attributes: brilliant first chairs; a mellow, woody string section; spectacular brass; and the uncanny ability of all the musicians to breathe and perform as one — united by a conductor who eschews Leonard Bernstein-like flamboyance.

Even today, many aficionados regard the Cleveland as the finest Germanic-style symphony orchestra in the world. Perhaps that’s one reason why Mr. Welser-Most, an intense, scholarly Austrian as strong-minded as Mr. Szell but somewhat less forbidding, appears capable of leading it well into the 21st century.

While the strings today seem somehow a bit less rich than one might remember, many of the orchestra’s singular virtues remain virtually unchanged. All were on glorious display during Sunday’s concert, which was imaginatively programmed with three entirely different works that gave small ensembles and soloists numerous opportunities to emerge from the musical fabric to make their statements before blending back in.

The program opened not with an overture but with a lively performance of Antonin Dvorak’s complete “5th Symphony in F Major, Op. 76.” While not possessing the dramatic power of his later symphonies, this midcareer work shows the composer at his most inventive, displaying a masterful interleaving of seemingly disparate musical ideas.

The Cleveland (which tonight kicks off the 34th season of PBS’ “Great Performances” at 10 on Maryland Public Television, Channel 22) seemed a bit uncertain in the first movement, but came on strong throughout the remainder of the symphony, including its startlingly unusual finale. Contrasting with the work’s dominant sunniness, the fourth movement opens with a violent, extended statement in a minor key. This pounding motif alternates with happier thoughts before resolving in a richly dramatic conclusion at once exciting yet precise under Mr. Welser-Most’s steady baton.

In contrast to Dvorak’s boisterous Romanticism, Mozart’s “Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 (Prague)” is shapely, elegant and a trifle odd, consisting of only three movements rather than the traditional four. Nonetheless, it’s a work that gave the orchestra’s wind section and first chairs numerous chances to shine. They made the most of it, emerging like discreet Kilroys, responding to the string section’s calls while embellishing and developing them further. Like Mr. Szell, Mr. Welser-Most and his players united the clean lines of classical precision with Mozart’s inevitable touches of musical humor, resulting in a lively, yet refined interpretation.

For its final work, the orchestra performed Claude Debussy’s sweeping, three-movement tone poem, “La Mer (The Sea).” Mr. Welser-Most emphasized the work’s fragmented opening and emerging power, allowing instruments to surface and submerge as objects might when bobbing in the vastness of an endless sea. The work was thus transformed into something entirely new, a kind of early minimalism paradoxically billowing out into grander musical tapestry. From its low bass growls to its ripping brass outbursts, the finale ended gloriously before one was quite ready for it to conclude.

The only downer in this superb concert was the boorish behavior of numerous people in the audience who raced out the side exits to grab their cars before the conductor had even taken his first bows. Surely, an elite, intelligent orchestral ensemble, performing at an almost indescribable level of excellence, deserves far more respect than this.

****

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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