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A Mozart & Beethoven Evening at Mostly Mozart 2013

Posted on: August 11th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

In recent years I have attended many of the annual Mostly Mozart Festival Concerts at Lincoln Center, but my schedule this year has made that difficult, since I was away the first week of August for Glimmerglass Opera Festival, and I will be away the last weekend in August for the Lavender Law Conference in San Francisco.  But I am squeezing in two Mostly Mozart concerts, mainly because I particularly enjoy their Music Director, Louis Langree.

Last night I attended a Mozart-Beethoven evening conducted by Langree.  He began with Beethoven’s Overture to “The Ruins of Athens” and concluded with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  In between, he presented Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 K 219, commonly called the Turkish Concerto because of the pseudo-Turkish music in the finale, with Isabelle Faust as soloist.

I thought this was an excellent concert, despite the conservatism of the programming, because the conductor and orchestra were so intensely engaged, and the soloist was so delightful.  The Beethoven overture is actually rarely played as a concert piece, probably because it lacks the great tunes and exalted structure of the frequently played Beethoven concert overtures, such as Egmont or Prometheus, or the various overtures he wrote for his only opera (Leonore, known in revised form as Fidelio).  But this made sense for the program, because the theater piece for which he wrote it depicted the results of the Turkish sack of the city of Athens, so it provided at least a brief take by Beethoven on the pseudo-Turkish music that was the rage in central Europe in the late 18th-early 19th centuries.  Mozart did rather more with this, not only in the finale of the Concerto, but also in his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio.  The result is lively and tuneful, with hearty, stomping dance rhythms, in the Mozart finale.  Any “Turkish” influence in Beethoven’s music is more subtle.

Ms. Faust, who I don’t believe I’ve previously heard perform live, is an entrancing soloist, very physically demonstrative, who introduces her own ornaments and even some mini-cadenzas in the course of Mozart’s concerto, as the young composer (he wrote this at 19) would probably have done himself.  The interplay between Faust and Langree was fun to watch, and the result was a triumph.

No less a triumph, from my perspective, was the Beethoven symphony performance.  Of course, the Mostly Mozart orchestra, an aggregation of mainly freelancers and members of other groups that comes together annually to spend the month of August together with Langree, doesn’t have the polish and tightly knit ensemble of a group that plays together continuously throughout the long concert season, such as Orpheus or St. Luke’s or the NY Philharmonic.  As a result, there is sometimes a sort of “rough and ready” quality to their playing.  In addition, we are used to hearing Beethoven’s 5th performed by a rather larger string body than this (10-8-6-4-3), so the second movement suffered a bit from the lack of a really big, plush string sound, and the finale could sound a bit scrappy at times from the sheer lack of depth in a chamber-orchestra-size string body.  But, those issues aside, this was a super-charged 5th, the wind solos were almost all spot-on, the tympanist gave the kind of assertive performance, especially in the finale, that really propelled the music forward.

I found myself quite caught up in it, thinking as I was leaving the hall that no matter how many times one hears this piece, or how many other pieces command one’s allegiance, after a really good performance one feels like this symphony is the greatest ever written, the most perfect in form and expression, the most exhilarating to hear.  There was an immediate standing ovation that was well-deserved.

My only other Mostly Mozart concert, at least as of now, will be the all-Brahms program next Saturday, which I greatly look forward to.  We don’t hear the Brahms Double Concerto very often, so it should be quite a treat.

Orchestra of St. Luke’s – Heras-Casado Debut at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: February 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended the Orchestra of St. Luke’s subscription concert at Carnegie Hall.  Pablo Heras-Casado was making his first appearance at Carnegie Hall as principal conductor of the orchestra.  Christian Zacharias was the piano soloist in Chopin’s Concerto No. 2, Op. 21.  The program began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and continued after intermission with Hans Zender’s orchestration of five piano preludes by Debussy, concluding with the original 1841 version of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 120.

I had previously attended a concert conducted by Maestro Heras-Casado at the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart festival, and enjoyed his conducting, so I was looking forward to this.  He began the Egmont Overture with a more vigorous attack of the opening chords than I have heard in the past, and the entire performance was intensely dramatic, urgently forward-moving, whipping up quite a frenzy in the final section.  He had the orchestra playing with great precision and color.

The Chopin, I thought, provided quite a contrast.  I have enjoyed Christian Zacharias’s playing in the past, but I did not find him particularly inspired last night.  Technically his performance was superb, but I found it to be a bit subdued, quite a letdown after the dramatic Beethoven opening.  The Chopin piano concerti are early efforts by the teenage composer, sounding a bit like late-classical period piano sonatas with a surrounding of orchestral music of secondary importance.  (Indeed, I’ve heard recordings of one or the other Chopin concerto without the orchestra or with just a string quartet accompaniment, leaving the impression that the orchestra, apart from the first movement introductions, is not all that important in the scheme of things.)  Zacharias’s playing was very fluent, very smooth, lacking in dramatic highs — or at least this was my impression.  I found it hard to focus my attention on it.

Things were quite different after intermission.  Zender’s Debussy arrangements, said to be receiving their U.S. premiere on this concert, are almost cartoonish in their bright, primary colors, and he employs some unusual instruments, including the “musical saw”, to create odd sonic effect.  The harmonic language remains distinctly Debussyian, but the soundworld of these arrangements goes beyond Debussy without sounding unduly modernistic.  The orchestra played with sparkling finesse, and Heras-Casado showed a tender side, an ability to secure light, agile playing, that contrasted with his opening Beethoven.

Heras-Casado chose to end the program with Schumann’s original version of what was finally published as his 4th Symphony.  According to the program notes, Schumann shelved the piece after a “disastrous performance” and let it sit in the drawer for ten years, coming back to rework it after having written what are now known as his second and third symphonies.  The revised version from 1851 is the one that was published and absorbed into the standard orchestral repertory.  Hearing the original struck me as akin to hearing a “parody” of the familiar piece.  I think Schumann was wise to revise it.  The original first movement has a clunky transition from the introduction to the main allegro, and the orchestration is ineffective in spots.  The same might be said of the other movements, where there were some unfamiliar chord progressions, awkwardly orchestrated moments, and strange dynamics.  To someone who knows the standard version of this piece well, the experience of hearing this original version is like a trip to the funhouse with those odd mirrors that distort your image.  I certainly think it is worth taking this version our for a spin now and then, but I think the revised version — which incorporates the lessons Schumann learned in writing the next two symphonies — is entitled to its status as the preferred version.

One of the difficulties in judging the work in this version is that, never having heard Heras-Casado conduct the revised version, I found it hard to separate out the inherent scoring differences from possible interpretive differences from the performances I know by this conductor.  To judge by his Beethoven conducting in Egmont, one might not be surprised at some of the phrasing and dynamic decisions that the conductor made in the Schumann, departing from the performing tradition.  But how much of that was the conductor’s own view of this music, and how much was faithfulness to the earlier score?  Impossible to judge without comparing the scores side by side.

That said, the performance was superb.  The orchestra was charged-up, fully-engaged, and producing a bigger sound than one might expect from a slightly oversized chamber orchestra (12 first violins, 10 second, and on down the line for the strings).  One must presume that the conductor was getting the performance he asked for, making no attempt to hide or play down the gauche aspects of the original score.  At times it was quite exhilarating, and interesting to discover an old friend in a new dress, quashing the revised version’s resemblance — at least as to the “sound world” of the piece — to the third symphony, which is so pronounced in the revised edition.

So, while I would prefer the composer’s final thoughts on the 4th, this performance of the original version gave a fascinating aural glimpse into the composer’s workshop.  It was claimed as a Carnegie Hall premiere of this version of the piece.

On balance, this was an excellent debut concert for Heras-Casado.  I hope he’s back again soon with this orchestra.