Big Crowds Welcome Cleveland Orchestra for Blossom Season Opener


by Daniel Hathaway

A crowd estimated at 10,000 blanketed the lawn and filled the center section of the vast pavilion on Saturday evening, July 11, as The Cleveland Orchestra settled into its Blossom season. The program included striking performances of Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 led by music director Franz Welser-Möst. That seemingly odd pairing of pieces added up to an evening of orchestral and choral ecstasy from two very different points of view.

Messiaen’s “four meditations symphoniques” date from the early 1930s, when the composer had recently graduated from the Paris Conservatory and had been appointed tenured organist at the Church of the Trinity in Paris. Suffused with Catholic mysticism, the suite paints pictures of the ascension of Christ in movements headed by quotations from the Gospel of John, the Mass texts for the Feast of the Ascension, and Psalm 47.
The orchestration is unusual. The opening movement, “Majesty of Christ Asking for Glory from His Father,” is scored for brass and winds alone, while the last, “Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father,” is reserved for the strings. The second, “Serene Alleluias of a Soul Desiring Heaven,” is a wonderfully lyrical movement that begins with an exotic unison theme later repeated by the English horn emerging out of a cloud of hazy strings. The third, “Alleluia on the trumpet, Alleluia on the cymbal,” is replete with colorful fanfares and dance rhythms.

L’Ascension is early, but unmistakably Messiaen, even without the bird song and Hindu rhythms that characterize his later works — though as if on cue, a few Blossom birds made tuneful forays into the pavilion, while a distant train horn mysteriously matched pitches with wind chords. Welser-Möst led a beautifully-paced performance of a work that deserves more frequent hearings in its orchestral version (the composer turned it into a better-known organ work in 1934, swapping out its third movement for a new one.) The ultra-slow ending was magical as the string chords rose upward and finally disappeared into the rafters.

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