Carnegie Hosts a Duel; Cleveland Honors Bruckner

Question: What does cutting-edge classical music have in common with cancer drugs? Answer: Both are made by Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company. The man behind this unlikely product line is the late Paul Sacher, the eminent Swiss conductor, music patron and Roche director, who happened to be married to the widow of the son of Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, the company’s founder.

During a very long life (he died in 1999, at the age of 93), Sacher commissioned new works by Bartók, Stravinsky, Martin, Honegger and other notable modernists. Today, his legacy lives on in the Roche Commissions, which the company launched three years ago in partnership with the Lucerne Festival, Carnegie Hall and the Cleveland Orchestra. The third and most recent commission went to the Swiss composer Hanspeter Kyburz, whose catchily titled work for two singers and orchestra, touché, helped open Carnegie’s new season.

As the title suggests, touché is a musical duel—a 20-minute marital skirmish between a soprano and a tenor, accompanied by a symphony orchestra whose glittering exertions go way beyond the barbed, Beckett-like pillow talk. Mr. Kyburz, in keeping with many European composers of his generation (he’s 46), is an unabashed late modernist who grounds his compositions in formats that have more to do with higher mathematics than the vagaries of musical inspiration. Like his previous works, touché derives from a recipe of algorithms that the composer regards (according to his notes in the program) as “a metaphor for the things [the two characters] have failed to recognize and are subjected to.” In the old days, we called it “Fate.”

The program notes promise something more daunting than the performance delivers. Mr. Kyburz’s music is consistently engaging, emotionally evocative and beautifully put together—a witty, scary, sensuous fever chart of marital miscommunication. Alas, there’s also a libretto (written in English by the composer’s wife) to attend to. Mr. Kyburz and his wife have taken great pains to link the words and the music for sense, sound and rhythm, and it’s hard to imagine two more articulate fencing partners than the American soprano Laura Aiken and the English tenor John Mark Ainsley. Nonetheless, I found the text more distracting than illuminating, because the resources of the singers were so unequal to those of the orchestra.

Since the razor-edged precision of touché’s musical constructions clearly owes much to the composer’s computer, I wondered why he didn’t think of prerecording the singers and amplifying them into a more equal partnership with the orchestra. The live vocal performance of touché makes eavesdropping on the couple’s marital troubles too hard.

For all its built-in obstacles, this year’s Roche Commission was the most vibrant element in a somewhat bewildering patchwork of programs by the Clevelanders and their elegant young music director, Franz Welser-Möst, who is beginning his fifth season with the orchestra.

Opening night brought forth a surfeit of Viennese schlag: Bonbons by Franz von Suppé and Johann Strauss bracketed an exquisitely played Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17, with the supremely buoyant Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes as soloist, and two familiar Mozart arias, sung with radiant intensity by the young German soprano Dorothea Roschmann, who was substituting for an indisposed Thomas Quasthoff.

On the second night, sandwiched between Dvorak’s loquaciously folkloric Symphony No. 5 and Debussy’s sonic blockbuster La Mer, Mr. Kyburz’s work was made to seem slighter than it is. The third program began with a delightful oddity, Messiaen’s Un Sourire—the composer’s faux-naïve, ornithological homage to “the smile” in Mozart’s music. This was followed by a trio of Mozart concert arias sung with robust panache by a recovered Thomas Quasthoff, who went on to treat the audience to an unaccompanied virtuoso jazz rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a demonstration of the singer’s astonishing three-octave range that brought down the house.

All this was a warm-up for the elephant in the wings: Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, one of the great epic curiosities of the 19th century—a work of blazing majesty and repetitiveness that has an opiate effect on Bruckner addicts and makes lesser mortals mutter to themselves, “Oh, no—not that again!”

I am, as I have written before, a Cleveland Orchestra addict, continually renewed by this great collective’s dedication to making the best music out of whatever it is they’re playing, be it a Strauss polka or an untested Roche Commission. Some of my critical colleagues temper their admiration of the orchestra’s vaunted power and perfectionism; they grumble that the results are occasionally a little too “restrained” or “refined”—that, as one of them puts it, “they never take me over the edge.”

To which I can only say that at a time when we’re subjected to so much persuasion by any means in our public life, the Clevelanders are a refreshing throwback to a more civilized age. Unlike some of their so-called peers among the world’s top-ranked symphonic ensembles, they never hector—they deliver; they never preen—they play.

Until now, I’d been a Bruckner skeptic. But at Carnegie the other night, all doubts vanished as, inexorably and gently, Mr. Welser-Möst and his band calmly opened the doors to this edifice of countless rooms and beckoned me inside. It was a wondrous place to be.