A musical homecoming, of sorts

The Cleveland Orchestra, which has many ties to the Florida Orchestra and the bay area, brings its precise, versatile style to the Mahaffey.

By ZACHARY LEWIS, Special to the Times
Published March 11, 2007


Although music will naturally be the main attraction Monday night when the Cleveland Orchestra performs in St. Petersburg, the occasion also is a reunion.

In other words, this isn't just some auxiliary concert on the way to Miami, where the orchestra has taken up part-time residency. It's a chance for old friends to renew long-standing ties, and for new listeners to discover one of America's great orchestras without suffering the cold weather of northeast Ohio.

No one may be looking forward to the reunion more than Ellen dePasquale, associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, whom many in the Tampa Bay area remember as the former concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra.

DePasquale, whose parents live in Jacksonville, says she has nothing but "positive thoughts" about the Florida Orchestra, which snatched her up fresh out of college, and for the region in which she's touring as part of one of the so-called Big Five orchestras.

"It's been a long time," dePasquale says of her days with the Florida Orchestra, which she left in 1999. "They took a chance on someone who had no experience. But they knew I cared and would try my best at all times. They allowed me to make mistakes and grow. I'm very excited to be going back."

Chris Fahlman, general manager of the Mahaffey Theater, also is anticipating the concert. From 1969-89, he was the Cleveland Orchestra's assistant general manager and manager of the summertime Blossom Music Festival.

His affection for his former employer is clear, and not only from his lingering use of the word "we" in talking about the orchestra.

"The Cleveland Orchestra is, to me, incomparable," he says. "I'd feel that way no matter where I lived now."

There are other connections as well. Jahja Ling, former resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and former Blossom director, was music director of the Florida Orchestra before Stefan Sanderling.

And Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the guest conductor presiding over the Cleveland's Florida foray, previously was a guest conductor with the Florida Orchestra. The Peru native and music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra also attended school with many current Cleveland Orchestra members, including dePasquale. "She used to play for my conducting classes," he recalls fondly.

Cleveland's finest

Whatever the connections, the evening is bound to be a treat. "What a unique instrument," Harth-Bedoya says of the Cleveland Orchestra. "It's a great gift to be conducting them, I have to say."

Few orchestras rival Cleveland's for precision, clarity, versatility and sheer willingness to play as one body. Although some reviews, particularly those of performances involving music director Franz Welser-Most, can be mixed, critical reception nationally and internationally generally glows.

For their part, most Clevelanders happily share their treasure. Although the Miami residency and other appearances around the country - in St. Petersburg, Nashville, Asheville, N.C., and Chapel Hill, N.C. - translate into fewer performances at the orchestra's home, Severance Hall, loyal fans appreciate the need to make money. Ensembles around the nation have struggled to make ends meet, and the Cleveland is no exception.

As Fahlman noted, of the "Big Five" American orchestra cities, Cleveland is "clearly the smallest city supporting such a fine institution. That means they have to think outside the box to stay alive, and this is a very clever way to do it."

Money isn't the only difficulty these days. There have been reports of discontent among players and friction between players and management. In February, dePasquale, one of the most visible members of the orchestra, announced she will resign in August. She won't say why, but speculation has centered around differences between dePasquale and Welser-Most, the music director. "It's not something that's practical or logical," she told Donald Rosenberg, classical music critic for the Plain Dealer. "It's purely based on principle."

Expect excellence

Rumblings aside, the Cleve-land Orchestra remains in tip-top shape artistically.

Many people contend it's useful for listeners to hear different orchestras in a familiar space, which raises an interesting question. How will the Cleveland Orchestra - with its 20-player edge over the Florida Orchestra - sound in Mahaffey Theater?

"I would imagine they'll sparkle in the space," says Fahlman, the theater's general manager. "It should be a large, lush sound, a nice demonstration of their flexibility. I'd be surprised if that weren't the case."

Monday's program itself is a demonstration of flexibility. Judging by an earlier performance of the program - minus one piece - in Cleveland, this listener can vouch for the irresistible fun Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra have with Manuel de Falla's Three-Cornered Hat Suite. Some listeners may prefer more drawn-out emotion in Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture than this combo provides, but none could ask for greater refinement.

It remains to be heard how Harth-Bedoya and the Cleveland Orchestra will handle Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, the final piece on the program, but dePasquale offers a prediction.

"We'll make this program sound great," she says. "Of that, I have no doubt.

"Whatever the parameters, we always rise to the occasion."

Zachary Lewis is a general assignment reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a freelance music writer.

If you go

The Cleveland Orchestra

The orchestra performs works by Tchaikovsky, Falla and Rimsky-Korsakov at 8 p.m. Monday at the Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets, $55-$95, are available at (727) 898-2100, (813) 287-8844 and www.mahaffey theater.com.