by Mark Satola, Cleveland.com
CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — For a summer festival concert, Sunday night’s outing by the Cleveland Orchestra was unusually substantial.
The all-Czech program explored lesser-known but first-rate repertoire by Smetana, Janacek, and Dvorak, with nary a greatest hit in sight.
Guest conductor Michael Francis, music director of the Tampa Bay-based Florida Orchestra since 2015, delivered electrifying performances of Smetana’s “Sarka,” Janacek’s “Taras Bulba,” and the dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Dvorak, to a medium-sized audience. Those who didn’t attend missed one of the most satisfying evenings of this year’s Blossom Festival.
“Sarka” is probably the least-heard tone poem of the six that make up Smetana’s famous cycle “Ma Vlast” (“My Fatherland”). Likewise, it is the most directly programmatic. Where “The Moldau” traces the course of the Vltava River to the sea, and “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields” celebrates Czech countryside, “Sarka” tells a meaty story about the female warrior Sarka, unlucky in love, and her quest for revenge against all men.
Smetana pitches the drama high from the opening bars, and Francis seized the moment with intensity, whipping up an orchestral frenzy that was a perfect counterpart to the maiden warriors’ bloodbath at the climax. There was no lack of control, however, and the blend of orchestral sound was perfectly balanced. Assistant principal clarinetist Dan McKelway made a nice contribution midway through.
Janacek had found his mature voice by the time he wrote his three-paneled symphonic rhapsody “Taras Bulba,” inspired by Gogol’s novella, which tells the story of the Cossack warrior who led a campaign against Poland, at the expense of his own life and those of his sons, Andrij and Ostap.
“Taras Bulba” is a fine example of Janacek’s almost pointillistic writing for the orchestra. Francis knitted the melodic cells together beautifully, realizing the composer’s brilliant sonic tapestry. The orchestra responded with its usual astounding artistry. First associate concertmaster Peter Otto received extra acclaim for his nice rendering of the work’s important violin solos.
As a conductor, Francis is a deeply involved leader, with an unflagging attention to form, drama, balance, and the tiniest details. His baton technique is expansive and complex and communicates clearly and eloquently with his players, but is also refreshingly free of showiness.
Those characteristics served everyone well when it came to the central work on the program: Dvorak’s Seventh. A work of unusual seriousness and breathtaking compositional mastery, the symphony finds Dvorak navigating some of the most complex counterpoint of his career.
Francis was more than up to the challenge, driving home the energetic passagework of the first movement with confidence, shaping the heartfelt Adagio with sensitivity, and bringing a danceable lilt to the easygoing Scherzo.
The finale was a marvel of energy and momentum in Francis’s hands, with a high-octane accelerando in the coda that only upped the level of excitement that the artists were already generating.
As always with Dvorak’s colorful orchestration, there are many opportunities for soloists to shine, and assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun, English hornist Robert Walters, and clarinetist Dan McKelway took their well-earned bows at the conclusion.