Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From Bach to broken branches at Mostly Mozart

I loved the performance at the Mostly Mozart Festival I attended last night, not just because it allowed me to bask in a perfect late summer evening and pretend that the academic year was still only a distant shimmer on the horizon. The pieces given were loosely linked by the influence of J.S. Bach on his successors (so the program note); what composer, I might ask rhetorically, has not been influenced by Bach? This could perhaps include the evening's soloist, Stephen Hough, who gave the New York premiere of his own 2010 sonata, "broken branches," in what the program called a pre-concert recital. (I have conflicting feelings about the format of this. I hope it might tempt in some audience members wary of new music, but it also seems to savor faintly of making such works wait around in an antechamber before being formally received into the canon, and the status of main event. Your thoughts on this, Gentle Readers, are welcomed.) The sonata itself I found emotionally involving and evocative. Consisting of linked sections within a single movement, it alludes to Janacek's "On an Overgrown Path" and to John 15. It is hardly too much to say that any composer's note referencing a sixth-century Latin hymn is guaranteed my intellectual enthusiasm. Melodic themes were rearranged, fragmented, questioning each other, eventually emerging through tempests of glissandi to a quieter inquiry that floated off the upper end of the keyboard into silence. Striking throughout was not only the precision of Hough's playing but the variety of colors he drew from the keys. It's quite the week of faith and doubt in music for me!

The evening continued with Bach--foremost composer, perhaps, of faith and doubt--in the form of Mendelssohn's arrangement of JSB's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. Andrew Manze led the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a performance of considerable beauty, if not brought as close to the bone as Bach can be. I especially appreciated the liveliness with which the dance movements were shaped, giving their dignified progression an appropriately festive feel. The famous air in the second movement was played with affectionate engagement by concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini.

Following this, Mendelssohn's piano concerto no. 1 was given with surprising and welcome impulsion from the orchestra and Mr. Hough. No too-restrained mannerism here: swift tempi and dynamic give-and-take made this a performance that felt unusually lively and spontaneous. I was, again, struck by the precision of Hough's playing, and his gift of emphasizing the turn (or return) of a musical phrase with a slight shift in volume or tone. Generously, he gave the enthusiastically applauding audience an encore, making Liszt's Träumerei simultaneously more delicate and more profound than I had imagined it as.

By this point, my companion and I were thoroughly pleased... and we hadn't even gotten to the Mozart! The Jupiter symphony was given with verve that did nothing to undermine its nobility. The strings were notable for their use of dynamic nuance, and the cohesiveness and energy of the ensemble were both admirable. The playful woodwind solos, too, were delightful. This performance was Manze's Mostly Mozart debut, but he seemed to have a fine rapport with the orchestra. With the exception of a few cell phone offenders and early leavers (who are these people?) the audience seemed to be engaged as well, hardly sounding consumptive at all, and heartily applauding at the evening's close.

Sneaky photos of post-Mendelssohn bows. Note how happy everyone looks!

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