Great stories are truly brought to life only through great storytellers. This is obviously true in the world of non-musical theater, but the concept of purely instrumental music conveying actual literary programs has always been questionable. It is doubtful that it was coincidental that the Cleveland Orchestra’s program at UNC’s Memorial Hall consisted entirely of works based on a famous play, a folktale, and a composite of stories that for centuries, for better or worse, have defined a culture. There is no better orchestral raconteur than Cleveland, and their dynamic guest conductor.

Their golden reputation as one of the best orchestras in the world certainly preceded their arrival as Memorial Hall was filled to the brim for what, to many present, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This was no truncated touring company, but the entire orchestra barely fitting onto the stage. As one entered the auditorium, all of the players were already seated and warming up and you could almost feel the communal remembrances of great Cleveland Orchestra recordings with past master conductors like George Szell.

Leading the band for this program was the frightfully young and energetic Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony along with numerous guest appearances and engagements with major symphonies and opera companies. He conducted the entire concert sans musical and physical nets. No music stand, no score, no podium railing, not even one of those wood strips to serve as a warning track at the back of the smallish podium.   

This concert was run like a precise timepiece. At 7:58 concertmaster William Preucil (formerly first violinist of that other great Cleveland-named ensemble – the Cleveland Quartet) came out, signaled the oboe to say “Ayyyyyy” and everyone quickly and quietly tuned up. Harth-Bedoya then bounded out and at precisely 8 p.m. gave the downbeat for one of Tchaikovsky’s most beloved works – the Romeo and Juliet Overture. Except for the over-the-top romanticism of the famous love theme, it is doubtful that a listener unfamiliar with the background of the piece would somehow link this to Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Nonetheless, the playing was so passionate and powerful that you could feel all the emotions of this timeless story. Warm, liquidy strings, light, fleet woodwinds and pumped-up brass gave this a performance that convincingly portrayed the dramatic ebb and flow of doomed lovers. 

The Suite from The Three-Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla is every bit as much a concerto for orchestra as those compositions with that name by Bartok, Lutoslawski and others. This suite contains seven continuous sections that illustrate the old-as-time story of a love triangle. Furious Spanish rhythms combined with sweeping melodies to transport us to the fiery Mediterranean culture. This was tinged with a definite French impressionist flavor as de Falla lived and studied in Paris from 1907-14. Harth-Bedoya practically became a choreographer as he danced his way through this tour-de-force, perhaps reinforcing to his orchestra the dance basis of much of this music.

When it was first announced that the Cleveland Orchestra would perform here but that the second half would consist of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, that almost killed the deal. This is a work that way overstays its welcome. That is a pity since it does contain exquisite melodies – repeated exponentially. There is the old remark about the late actor Laurence Olivier; that he was so great you can listen to him read the telephone book. The same could be said about the Cleveland Orchestra playing the same theme dozens of times in the same work. It is a given that they all play the notes perfectly and their rhythm is impeccable, but there are other subtle yet extremely important attributes which make them one of the “big five.” Dynamic range and unanimity in these extremes was one of the traits of their sound which jumped out the most. One hundred musicians going from the quietest to the loudest and then back again all in the space of one quarter note is not an easy task.

This concert was quite a reversal from the situation which I have noticed over the past 20 years living and attending concerts here. On many occasions a well-known soloist or ensemble either on their way to or coming from an “important” gig in New York has treated a concert down south as a warm up or cool down. I saw the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in October, 2005 and it was quite disappointing; complacent, lethargic, and even sloppy at times. Chapel Hill, this time, got the best they can be, and that’s as good as it gets.