Difficult new score proves seductive with Cleveland Orchestra, guest cellist

Matthias Pintscher
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Patience, as in life, is a virtue in music appreciation. Dismiss a work or performance too quickly and you're very likely to miss the point completely.

The temptation to tune out was high at Severance Hall Thursday, when the Cleveland Orchestra and cellist Alban Gerhardt gave the U.S. premiere of Matthias Pintscher's "Reflections on Narcissus." But those who stuck with the thorny, 35-minute piece probably found themselves seduced in the end, won over by the work in its totality.

Although the score, completed in 2005, is often raucous and noisy, the performance Thursday under Pintscher himself wasn't so much hard on the ears as slippery, offering precious little to grasp. Mostly, like the watery mirror in the myth on which it's based, the music came as a stream of enticing but quickly-vanishing effects and colors.

The narrative, too, was far from straightforward. From its five continuous movements, one merely took away the sense of a rise and fall. Required was a fresh mentality, an approach to the work as a happening rather than a presentation and development of ideas. This was one of those scores best enjoyed live.

Like the fabled image of Narcissus, Gerhardt was impossible to resist. Between eerie sighs, howling screeches, and agitated sprints, the cellist, performing from memory, made for a spellbinding protagonist. Matching his steely intensity in several head-to-head bouts was principal cellist Mark Kosower.

Percussion played nearly as vital a role. Out of its ranks came such curious and evocative sounds as gurgles, spurts, rumbles, and crashes, suggesting aquatic activity and heightening the impact of dramatic peaks.

"Reflections" may not have been easy to love, but the experience in sum made submitting to its acrid embrace more than worth the effort.

Patient listeners also were rewarded with three musical treats as readily delightful as "Reflections" was prickly: Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and Ravel's "Alborada del Gracioso" and "Mother Goose" ballet.

Like Pintscher's concerto, all three are steeped in fictional tales. But leaving them to Pintscher made artistic as well as programmatic sense; the complexity of his own music has made him a astute interpreter of music in which precision and grace are paramount.

In "Mother Goose," the conductor kept the orchestra light on its toes as well as limber, free to sculpt phrases in search of maximum emotional value. Throughout, too, he wielded a broad palette of dynamics, while the woodwinds turned in too many charming solos to count.

Likewise, the standouts in "Apprentice" were the bassoons, who made hay with their unforgettable main theme. But their peers in the brass and strings were also key, rounding out a dramatic, highly animated scene.

Even patience came into play again. With "Apprentice," most listeners probably knew what was coming, and the best strategy was to simply wait and let the music take you by surprise.