Every other year since 2011, the Cleveland Orchestra, arguably one of the best orchestras in the world, has held a residency at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. A major highlight of their just-concluded recent visit was a stellar January 21 performance in a packed IU Auditorium, under the very capable baton of Jakub Hrůša. Musicians also led master classes for music students, visited elementary schools, held talks and generally made themselves available to students during their three-day stay.
The concert started off with a bang in the form of Leoš Janáček’s compact work Jealousy, which started out as an overture to his opera Jenůfa but is now often performed as a standalone work. The orchestra dove into the work's intense, snarling moments with gusto, while pulling back for more gentle, delicate segments.
There are a few IU alumni in the orchestra, including concertmaster William Preucil, who studied with the late Josef Gingold, himself a former concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. Preucil has made quite a name for himself, distinguishing himself through his knowledge and expertise on the violin and playing a vital role in the musical leadership of the orchestra since his appointment in 1995.
Although Preucil remained seated for much of his performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, he gave as an energetic a rendition of this staple of the violin repertoire as one might imagine. A man of his position and stature has no doubt played this piece dozens of times, and probably worked on it with countless students, yet there was never a hint of staleness. Throughout the piece, Preucil’s bow work was effortless and versatile. There were stretches of time where bow changes were so smooth they were unnoticeable. At other times, he articulated passages in a distinct and deliberate fashion, as if the bow were speaking a language of inflections and strokes.
Sadly his left hand didn’t always meet the high level of playing demonstrated by his right; one heard intonation problems, particularly during double stops. But the joyous third movement was quite a treat, in the ever so happy key of A major, with its syncopated rhythms and folk-like tunes. Preucil played with an infectious liveliness well matched to the main theme of the movement, with the orchestra behind him in a consistently tasteful and complementary mood.
Next came another staple, this time from the orchestral canon: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally a work for piano, Maurice Ravel (and many other composers as well) took to orchestrating it, with Ravel and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangements being the most popular. The work takes you on a musical visit, if you will, of paintings by Mussorgsky’s close friend, Viktor Hartmann.
So often the piece's movements feel distinct and separate, but in Hrůša hands it registered as fluid and refreshing, as if one were walking in a museum, slowing down between paintings, but never stopping. Pictures at an Exhibition is a brass player’s dream, and the Cleveland Orchestra brass is an audience’s dream — never in your face, making their presence known gracefully but with all the confidence, vigor and precision you could ever find. The strings ranged from lush and cushy to gritty and malevolent, sometimes within seconds, working together smoothly and seamlessly. The same can be said of the woodwinds, cohesive as a section can get.
The final movement, The Great Gate of Kiev, ended the night on a majestic, regal and grand note — and such adjectives could equally apply to the Cleveland Orchestra on the whole.