by Daniel Hathaway

Joel Smirnoff, CIM president, makes his Ohio conducting debut with CityMusic Cleveland

On a dark and windy night, with dire predictions of a major winter storm on its way (didn’t quite happen), what better refuge than a warm, brightly lit church and a free concert of some of Mozart’s most charming small orchestra music? Several hundred people thought so, packing Fairmount Presbyterian Church from narthex to chancel for Joel Smirnoff’s Ohio conducting debut with CityMusic Cleveland.

After a greeting from Fairmount pastor Louise Westfall, who led a charming, color coded tour through the deciduous program booklet’s coupons, surveys, concert handbills and donation forms, soloists Nathan Olson and Jessica Oudin came on with Maestro Smirnoff to give us the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, K.364.

CityMusic maintains an unusual ratio of low vs. high strings for a chamber orchestra (13 violins vs. 5 violas, 5 cellos and 2 basses), making for an agreeably rich sound in the opening ritornello but later creating a few challenges of balance for the solo viola. As concertante soloists, Olson and Oudin were well matched to the task, bringing fine character and style to their solo lines and fitting some intricate duets together with admirable precision. Particularly impressive: the second movement cadenza with its tricky trills and vanishing diminuendi.

Communication between the soloists and conductor/ensemble was sensitive and attentive; it doesn’t hurt that the conductor is himself a violinist! This was the first of five concerts for CityMusic Cleveland in the space of five days, and a few quite minor details of ensemble between soloists and orchestra will certainly sort themselves out as the run continues. As will tempos, which were a bit on the slow side this evening. Particularly in the last movement, marked presto but played allegro, the soloists seemed to want to move things along.

The Sinfonia was followed by a lengthy intermission (a reception was included) then the two short works of the second half. The Divertimento in D, K. 136 (aka the first ‘Salzburg Symphony) is a charming, three movement work which CityMusic played with wit, rich tone and good attention to balance and voicing. Violins tossed off their first movement passage work effortlessly; the ensemble sang in the Andante and danced in the Presto (once again, more of an allegro).

Soprano Chabrelle Williams, a singer we admired in Oberlin’s ‘Magic Flute’ last year, is only in her junior year at the Conservatory, but her vocal prowess certainly belies her youth. In the ‘Motet’ Exsultate Jubilate (more of a vocal concerto, as the program notes rightly suggested), she sang both with heft and brilliance, easily soaring over the orchestra of oboes, horns and strings.

This is simply lovely music in which the soloist bids the blessed souls in heaven to join her in sweet hymns, letting the heavens resound and heralding the dawn with garlands and lilies after a stormy night. (She does most of this inviting in the second movement recitative, played here with string accompaniment and no organ continuo, which might have added a welcome contrast of texture).

Ms. Williams’ biddings were sentiments we could wholeheartedly support, and she brought the message home. The last movement is the famous ‘Alleluia’, one of the jewels in Mozart’s repertory. She handled its melismas elegantly and nailed the high C at the end, winning a well-deserved standing ovation.

CityMusic Cleveland does a great service in bringing classical orchestral music to the community. The organization and its community partners create a welcoming atmosphere (who else offers bowls of Tootsie Rolls at the entrance doors, not to mention discount coupons to other organizations’ events?), and the price of admission (free, with gentle invitations to contribute) is highly attractive. And of course, audiences can look forward to an evening or an afternoon of predictably high quality music by young professionals, many from Cleveland, others brought in for the occasion.

There are four more opportunities to hear this lovely Mozart program. On Thursday at 7:30, the orchestra plays at Willoughby Methodist Church; on Friday at 7:30 at St. Ignatius of Antioch on the West Side, on Saturday at 7:30 in the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Slavic Village, and finally on Sunday at 3 at Elyria Methodist. There’s a performance near you!