Some interesting facts were presented to the audience by James Moeser, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in his preliminary remarks. Among them was that Carolina Performing Arts, and their programs this year, have been mentioned more times in the “Arts & Leisure” section of The New York Times than the basketball team has been talked about in the sports section. Each week there seems to be yet another world-renowned ballet company, theatrical event, or concert in every imaginable musical genre you can think of. For orchestra lovers, this was the pinnacle: the appearance of The Cleveland Orchestra performing a varied program of twentieth-century works that, at least in the first half, highlighted American composers.

The conductor for tonight’s concert was the very dynamic and energetic Giancarlo Guerrero, now in his fourth year as music director of the Nashville Symphony. In addition to his many appointments and his championing of contemporary composers, Guerrero is involved with the acclaimed Il Sistema music education program in Venezuela.

It still seems somewhat ironic that Aaron Copland, one of the most beloved and celebrated of American composers, is generally credited with the creation of the “American Sound” in orchestral concert music. He was a homosexual, born in Brooklyn, never rode a horse and even was said to have a phobia of being in wide, open spaces. Nonetheless, he developed a compositional style that the public latched onto as being the sound of America, especially the west. His music to the ballet Billy the Kid is perhaps the work that most exemplifies this style. Copland wrote this after much prodding by the director of Ballet Caravan; it premiered in 1938 and was an immediate hit.

The concert suite from the ballet is in six movements, and the first one, “The Open Prairie,” sets the tone right away. The woodwinds play wide, “open” intervals that evoke the majesty and seemingly infinite spaciousness of the American west. It is worth questioning whether we have just been musically conditioned to equate this style with our idealization of the prairie, or there is some intrinsic musical basis to this connection. While it can be fun to stick to the programmatic story of the life of Billy the Kid, the music is plenty standing alone. Guerrero led this esteemed ensemble with a great sense of playfulness and joy as the music varied from versions of folk songs, both American and Mexican, to a gunfight to beautiful love songs.

Despite some remarkable and popular works by composers like Mahler and Richard Strauss, orchestral song cycles can be a hard sell, especially if they are relatively new. However, after hearing Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, written in 2005 for his wife, soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, I suspect that many in the audience quickly logged into to search out recordings of this memorable and moving work. This marvel of poetry, music and unique orchestration consists of five love songs set to the works of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Soloist for this performance was mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, a seasoned veteran of opera companies all over the globe. While love is almost certainly the most popular topic of songs and extended song cycles, there is something quite mystical and overpoweringly emotive and evocative about these texts, and knowing them ahead of time would definitely have further enhanced the experience. But, DeShong sang with such intensity and pathos that you feel the, mostly, aches and pains of love without even referring to the poems. She had a lovely, centered pitch combined with an earthy, dark sound when appropriate for the text. She was clearly the one in control as it was Guerrero who exclusively followed her lead — I don’t recall her once looking at the conductor. Neruda Songs is a beautifully crafted composition filled with Spanish influence, subtle and delicate orchestration and an inward intensity whose difficulty belies its outward simplicity.

While the above pieces played in the first half would certainly never be labeled as “easy,” it was the second half that put the Cleveland Orchestra on virtuosic display and showed why they are still considered one of the “big five” American orchestras. From Copland’s somewhat revolutionary take on a true American ballet we now experience one of the greatest and most fertile partnerships of music and Russian ballet: Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev. Petrouchka, whose story centers around the idea of a puppet coming to life, had its beginnings around the same time as The Rite of Spring. What we most often hear, as performed, is Stravinsky’s 1947 re-orchestration and reworking for concert performance. It is in four movements, or tableaux, connected by a recurring drum roll. It starts out with a swirling, almost psychedelic-like pattern that immediately transports the listener to a magical world.

Much of the puppet’s movements are represented by the woodwinds in phenomenally complex rhythmic patterns that, of course, were breezily played by these great players. There is also an extended section of very fast repeated notes by the trumpeter which seemed as natural as one long held note. Bitonality (two melodies played in different keys simultaneously) is another ear-opening feature of this work. Guerrero conducted without a score and, at times, his enthusiasm was so infectious that he seemed to become the puppet. This was in stark contrast to most of the orchestra, who despite their exemplary performance, appeared to be physically somewhat disengaged from the music.

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Richard Luby, beloved member of the UNC music faculty who had a distinguished career as violinist and teacher.