Vladimir Ashkenazy is not your average orchestra conductor. First of all, do not expect him to arrive on stage in the traditional formal coat and black tie. The coat may be there, but I think tight collars and he don’t get along, as he prefers a white turtleneck, on stage and elsewhere as well! His style of conducting is equally individual. As opposed to the stiff ramrod school of conducting, Ashkenazy gets his entire body into the act, conveying nuances of the score in front of him with everything from his ankles up through his eyebrows! This manner of behavior might make him out to be something of an oddity at the podium but for one very important point: Vladimir Ashkenazy knows exactly what he wants out of the orchestra and how to get it! And he gets it with astonishing skill and regularity. That said, I was delighted to learn that Ashkenazy had returned to Severance Hall to conduct Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 1” and his Piano Concerto No 1, two long-time favorites of mine, plus Ashkenazy’s orchestration of a third favorite: Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” I was further pleased to realize that tickets for that concert were part of my yearly subscription to The Cleveland Orchestra.
At 8:04 PM, Saturday evening, after Concertmaster Bill Preucil had come out to tune the orchestra, Vladimir briskly strode out to the applause of a packed house. He acknowledged the plaudits of the audience, immediately thereafter addressed himself to the orchestra and tore into the “Romeo and Juliet.” The sound was rich, focused, and well-conceived, and I cannot say that I was surprised in the slightest. Ashkenazy was a regular guest conductor of TCO back when Christoph von Dohnanyi was Musical Director, and his concerts never failed to be entertaining and enlightening. I noted that some of his tempi were quite a bit faster than I was used to in some sections of the piece, but that the orchestra “got it” and made sense of it. This may sound odd, but there are some conductors who simply don’t get along with some orchestras, and to hear this is a jarring and dislocating experience. Thankfully, this has never been the case with Ashkenazy and Cleveland; they work with him and play for him, and the evidence of that is available to anyone who owns a pair of working ears.
The “Romeo and Juliet” was done and wonderfully so, and the orchestra turned to Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, the composer’s graduation piece from the St. Peter's Conservatory. This is a short but intense work, with the keyboard chores in this case being tackled by one Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Once again, Ashkenazy started out with a brisk allegro brioso, with Bavouzet and Ashkenazy working in clear coordination. This isn’t necessarily a given, as Prokofiev’s piano concerti always have struck me as being a balance between equals of piano and orchestra. Ashkenazy, a world-class pianist in his own right, recognized this from the outset and at least twice conducted with his eyes firmly set on the keyboard and his soloist’s hands, to ensure the ensemble of the performance.
The other pleasing facet of this performance was that, for all the brio of the work, it was not rushed. Too often I have heard virtuoso pianists try to show off by demonstrating how fast they can play a piece, as opposed to how well. Bavouzet was clearly of the second school in this performance, as he phrased his playing, brought clarity and contrast to his solos, especially the tumultuous section in the third movement, and played with power and control from Letter A through the end of the work. The audience didn’t hesitate to show its appreciation to Bavouzet and Ashkenazy and of course, the orchestra, and we tried mightily to get the young keyboard man to break out an encore for us – sadly, not this time.
The featured work of the evening was a particular treat for me. I grew up with Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and have heard it live at least three or four times, but this night was to showcase Vladimir’s take on the original piano piece, which I had never heard before, and certainly, several surprises were in store! Instead of the solo trumpet introducing “Promenade,” Ashkenazy masses the horn section into a totally no-nonsense declamation of the opening walking theme of the work. Woodwinds and strings are introduced in turn, much as with the Ravel, but the differences in tonal colors here was a distinct and most enjoyable departure from the better known orchestration. “Gnomus,” though also colored differently, remained the hideous, malformed creature which cannot be mistaken even in the piano version of “Pictures.” “The Old Castle” remained rustic and ancient, its troubadour at the gates still unadmitted, still morose, but the again, the different usages from Ashkenazy’s palette allowed us to see the handiwork from Viktor Hartmann’s brush which inspired Mussorgsky from a different angle, a different perspective.
Between “The Old Castle” and the “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells” there was an incident on stage which I feel I must report. For some unknown reason, the bass clarinetist departed the stage during “The Old Castle,” leaving her instrument there and the third clarinetist to cover for her. Immediately, the young man referred to his score and his fellow clarinetist to his left. I could see them both in brief, inaudible conversation, sorting out how to deal with this situation and where in the score the bass clarinet was coming up. When the time came, he took on the unwieldy instrument and voiced its assigned lines as though it was no big thing, just another day at the office, then set it aside to join his fellow clarinetists in their solo of the bridge melody of “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells.” That, I thought, was the pure sign of a pro.
“Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle” yet again was the tune I knew, painted with a new palette; between it and “Catacombs” was a restatement of “Promenade” which Ravel had omitted, and “Catacombs” itself was a cavern of depth and profundity which I purely marveled at. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” danced in its insane, staccato rhythm with different instruments highlighting elements of the score I had never noticed before, and “The Great Gate at Kiev” opened with more reserve and closed with far greater power.
At its closing, the attendants of Severance Hall were on their feet, praising a concert which had been wall-to-wall virtuosity … and once again, I had to reflect to myself: “This is why I listen to live music.”