The Cleveland Orchestra came to town this week, the fourth of six visitors lined up for the American Orchestra Series, which brings the leading orchestras of the country to Davies Symphony Hall for two-night stands during the San Francisco Symphony's Centennial Season. While all of the visitors have been impressive, I have to say that so far, and with no small amount of surprised amusement, the Clevelanders have been the band who've impressed me the most. But then it's par for the course, almost expected isn't it, to have lower expectations for Cleveland? I mean that's what America does, right? Remember when the lake caught fire? What about those Browns? Does anyone take the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seriously? How can one when Alice Cooper and Santana are in it while Kiss and War are not?

Sorry, I'm off topic. I'll stop.

Such a bland name for a post, isn't it? But there was only one other possible choice and it felt too easy- and then Brian took it, so I couldn't use it even if I wanted to. Oh well. I have no connection to the city of Cleveland except for an ex-girlfriend who came from there and then decided to return after living in L.A. for fifteen years. But I don't want to write about her in this post. What can one say about Cleveland? Does anyone not originally from there go for a pleasure visit? Well, should I ever find myself there I do hope it's during the Orchestra's season. Good grief, what a band!

The first night's concert featured works by Mendelssohn, Saariaho and Shostakovich and it became evident early in the concert the orchestra possesses a magnificent sound, the strength of which emanates from its string section, but I wouldn't want to give the impression that's where it stops. During the first movement of Mendelssohn's 3rd Symphony, the Scottish, the orchestra perfectly captured the feel of a rolling tumultuous sea before turning it into a swashbuckling romp. Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein's playing shone especially well through the orchestra's blended sound.

The second half revealed Music Director Franz Welser-Möst's real strength to be a mastery of tempos. Kaija Saariaho's Orion,  a commission by this company and the one I was most looking forward to hearing on this night, was stunning. The orchestra for this work is immense- one of the largest I've ever seen onstage, including a battery of percussionists. The first movement is full of chugging, Hermann-esque sounds of ominous energy. Sounds came from the musicians that were almost impossible to identify and I found myself scanning them constantly to see who was playing what, or which instrument(s) was responsible for what I was hearing. In 3 or 4 places the music hung in the air before evaporating into silence, with Welser-Möst wringing every possible moment of dramatic impact from it before the only sound left was total silence before commencing with the next part- you could feel the audience's rapt attention- I've never, ever heard it so silent in Davies, and the house looked to be at capacity. The piece didn't receive a standing ovation, just hearty applause, but I certainly thought it merited one.

After that came Shostakovich's 6th Symphony, and the wind section of the orchestra shone brightly here, with especially notable playing coming from Mary Kay Fink on the piccolo. I also appreciated the restrained, thoughtful playing of Paul Yancich on the timpani. The second half of this concert rivaled anything else I've heard this season in Davies for simply superb execution and musicianship. I left the hall that evening greatly impressed.

The next night I returned for more, especially looking forward to hearing the Beethoven Violin Concerto- a personal favorite of mine. The soloist was Nikolaj Znaider, with whom I was unfamiliar- I'm not sure the Danish performer has ever made it this far west before (though the program noted he frequently plays with East Coast orchestras). Even a substandard performance of this masterpiece holds many pleasures, and though I found this particular performance to have some oddities, if I could combine it with the second half of the previous night's performance it would have been something close to perfection.

Welser-Möst made some fascinating decisions regarding the tempos of the piece, especially in the first movement, with each section performed at a different pace than its predecessor, all of them slower than I would have expected, which gave the orchestra room to stretch the grandeur of it to maximum effect. Like in the Saariaho work the night before, the phrases hung beautifully in the air. Znaider, on the other hand, seemed intent to work with a cross purpose, playing as fast as possible within Welser-Möst's slower, expansive tempo. It was strange, and while conceptually I thought it an interesting choice, I frequently found myself disliking what I heard- this was especially true in his rough and tumble treatment of the cadenzas, where Znaider's earthy folk-inspired playing jarred against the elegance of the orchestra to ill effect.

The pizzicato of the second movement never sounded more like a dance than it did here, and the lyrical waltz of the third brought out all of the exuberant joy of it shares with Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the relation between the two being well rendered under Welser-Möst. Despite my qualms with Znaider's approach, it was still a pleasure.

As was Thomas Adès' Dances from Powder Her Face, his chamber opera that I hope will one day show up on a stage in this city. The fifteen minute piece elicited laughter from the audience- the music easily conveys the more farcical elements of this work about the "Dirty Duchess." There's a heavy, heady mix of musical genres within the score and the orchestra handled it with panache. The final piece were three of the six symphonic poems from Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Country), which were richly performed with robust tempos, but I have to admit to feeling like the visit to Bohemia was longer than I would have stayed on my own itinerary, though the first, The Mighty Fortress, was certainly evocative of a lonely, forbidding castle.