Mostly Mozart on Aug. 17: It Matters Where You Sit and When You Go

Last night I attended a Mostly Mozart Festival concert led by British conductor Jonathan Nott, the long-time music director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, with piano soloist Juho Pohjonen, a young Finnish musician, soloing in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488.  The program began with Igor Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments," and concluded after intermission with Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in Bb, Op. 60.

This concert provided me with a vivid example of how it makes a big difference where you sit in Avery Fisher Hall, and after seeing Anthony Tommasini's review of Tuesday night's performance of the same program in the New York Times this morning, I conclude it also matters when you go. 

To take up this second point first, the rehearsal schedule for Mostly Mozart must, of necessity, be truncated compared to the rehearsal schedule enjoyed by the NY Philharmonic in a typical subscription week, since the MM orchestra is preparing two complete concert programs per week over a compressed period of a month, while the NYP normally prepares one concert a week, and interrupts the weekly routine several times during the season with out-of-town performances and run-outs to other venues in the metro area, which involve repeats of already-prepared programs.  MM performs each program just twice, and in light of the truncated rehearsal schedule, the first performance is in some respects really like a dress rehearsal for the second.  I usually try to attend the second performance of a program, to get the benefit of the additional polish the performance may acquire as a result of the program having been tested out once before an audience the previous evening.  The musicians are that much more familiar with the music – especially when it comes to a piece that is not in the usual MM repertory, like the Stravinsky played this week – and it is likely to show in the performance.  It is also likely that ensemble cohesion will be better the second time through the program with an audience, and that bloopers perpetrated the first night are not likely to recur on the second.

As to the first point, my ticket was for seat 5 in box 7 of the second tier, keyboard side of the hall.  Being surrounded by noisy and distracting people (the woman to my left wore those unwelcome noise-generating bracelets that should be confiscated by the ticket-takers upon entry, and a woman two seats to my right had a little flashlight that she kept turning on and off to read her program book during the music – so distracting that after the Stravinsky an usher came into the box on suspicion that somebody was taking flash photos), I scoped out empty seats across the hall and at intermission went down one level to a seat in the middle of box 3 in the first tier, a box that was virtually empty during the first half.  (There were distractions there as well, as it turned out: a young child in adjacent box 7 who was talking, gesturing wildly in imitation of the conductor, and even pounding on the railing at times, and two women in box 5 directly behind me who chattered from time to time during the music.  You really can't completely escape incompetent and inconsiderate audience members in this town….)  What struck me was how much better focused and balanced the sound was in the first tier box.  It was not just a case of a much more interesting visual show, being on the same level with the conductor and orchestra.  Up on the second tier, behind the first violins, that section sounded muffled and over-balanced by the low strings and winds.  On the first tier, sitting opposite them, they came through strongly focused and well-balanced, although from this perspective the tympani were at times too loud (they were stationed stage right), making the finale of the Beethoven sound at times like a tympani concerto. (No tympani in the first half.)  I suspect that my impressions of the first half were much tainted by the position of my seat.  I'm assuming Mr. Tommasini's seat was at or near a sweet spot on the orchestra level.

The Stravinsky – I've always found this piece a bit disjointed, but I thoroughly enjoyed Nott's performance with the winds of the MM Orchestra.  They seemed very together, spirited, and the tempi seemed just right to me.  Tommasini's review of the first night performance suggests to me that they weren't yet up to concert pitch on Tuesday.

The Mozart – I'd neverpreviously heard Juho Pohjonen, the latest young pianistic phenomenon from Scandinavia.  I came too late to hear his pre-concert recital piece.  I was most impressed by his encore, a delightful dance piece from Edvard Grieg's "Lyric Pieces," which he played with lots of flair and an appropriately light touch.  I was not so impressed with the Mozart Piano Concerto.  I thought the pianist's touch a bit too heavy and emphatic, with too many little interpretive "hesitations" in the allegros in particular.  This was abetted by Nott's approach to the orchestra part, which seemed to me a bit too smoothly cushioned and lacking the kind of brisk precision I prefer to hear from an orchestra in the Mozart piano concerti.  I grew up with the Casadesus/Szell recordings in this repertoire, and their recording of #23 was a particular favorite.  Casadesus played with elegance and wit, a matter of phrasing and dynamic control, and Szell provided a very precisely shaped accompaniment.  I found Pohjonen, while technically superb, lacking that elegance and wit, unduly restrained.  I have a feeling he will play this Concerto in a way more to my liking in five or ten years, but I don't think he's fully "played into" this music yet, or perhaps there is a slight intimidation factor from playing in these surroundings.  I suspect my impression of the orchestral accompaniment was colored by the acoustic problems I mentioned above.  I found the sound of the violins, especially the firsts, to be a bit mushy, the lines buried under the wind accompaniments, the sound too smoothed-over for my taste.  It was a very romantic approach to what, at least in the outer movements, does not strike me as a particularly romantic concerto.  The central Adagio was the best of the three movements last night, but even there I could have used a bit more momentum from the performers.  But I bet it sounded different to Nott on the podium, and might have sounded very different to me from the seat I occupied during the second half.

The Beethoven – This struck me as spectacular, and I think whatever roughness of execution Tommasini heard Tuesday night was pretty much vanquished by Wednesday night.  As mentioned above, my changed seat gave me a much brighter, well-focused sound, especially from the first violins. 

Nott's approach to this symphony is to treat it as a big statement, a suitable sibling to the 5th Symphony, whose composition was interrupted by the composer to write this and some other things.  The piece's reputation as being on a smaller scale may be partly due to the orchestration – unlike the 5th, the 4th has no trumpets, only one flute and no piccolo, and no trombones (their entry in the last movement of the 5th was actually an important innovation in the history of the symphony). But this smaller wind group is still capable of a big sound, the tympani are kept really busy, and Beethoven's demands on the string section are immense.  Indeed, it struck me last night that this performance, wonderful as it was, would have been even better with another few desks of musicians in each of the string sections.  There are exposed scale passages in all the strings that can sound just a bit lacking when played by a chamber-sized ensemble, and in full-throated tutti passages the tympani and winds tended to drown some of the figuration in the strings.  But there has been a vogue for performing Beethoven symphonies by chamber orchestras ever since Michael Tilson Thomas's revelatory recorded cycle with the English Chamber Orchestra several decades ago, which I think produces wonders in the first three symphonies but gives me pause once one reaches #4.

Nott's performance had all the mystery one could want in the Adagio introduction, and the eruption into the joyous Allegro vivace was truly explosive.  The second movement Adagio struck me in this performance as an important precursor to Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" – especially in the lyrical clarinet solos above plucked strings – and Nott and the MM Orchestra found lots of drama in the contrasting episodes.  The scherzo bubbled along beautifully, and the finale was fierce.  Beethoven marked this last movement Allegro ma non troppo – fast, but not too much so – but conductors like to play it as fast as the strings can articulate the scale passages.  (I once heard Klaus Tennstedt express satisfaction after conducting the New York Philharmonic in this movement at an extremely fast tempo.  I had brought my score to the concert to get his autograph afterwards, and when I handed it to him in the Green Room, he flipped to the last movement and signed his name over the first page.) 

In all, I found it a most satisfying 4th, confirming my very positive views of Nott based on past concert experiences and several marvelous recordings.  I hope he will be a frequent visitor to our NYC podia.

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