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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Concert Review: Evolution Calling

Bach and Mendelssohn are featured at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stephen Hough. Photo by Stanley Fefferman.
When attending a concert at Mostly Mozart consisting of standard repertory works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Mozart himself, one can be hard pressed to tease out a connection between abstract classical compositions from different time periods. The challenge becomes greater over the course of a long festival, made more so when one's occupation consists of writing reviews on a classical music blog.

Happily, this week's penultimate Mostly Mozart program (seen Wednesday night) consisted of threee works that made a coherent whole. Conductor Andrew Manze chose Mendelssohn's concert arrangement of Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, the younger composer's own First Piano Concerto (played by Stephen Hough) and a Mozart favorite, the ubiquitous but forward-thinking Jupiter Symphony. The choice of Mozart's last symphony seemed particularly apt, as the Jupiter anticipates at what would become the strange world of 19th century Romanticism.

It was refreshing to hear Mendelssohn's unfamiliar orchestration of the Bach suite, given a richer, more "classical" texture with the absence of accompanying harpsichord and the addition of two clarinets. Indeed, this was how listeners of the early 19th century might have encountered these five famous movements (the second: Air on a G String is one of Bach's "greatest hits") in the rich, mellifluous sound of a small orchestra playing with energy and dedication.

Felix Mendelssohn's concertos are not programmed often enough. He requires the fearsome dexterity and feather touch of Mozart with an innovative approach to melody that recalls Beethoven at his mellowest. Stephen Hough led the audience on a whirlwind tour through the composer's musical imagination, playing the melodic lines with a limpid clarity that made the music sound deceptively simple. (It isn't.)

Mr. Hough expanded this liquid approach further in the central slow movement, creating ripples up and down the keyboard as he developed the elegant central theme. The same elegance applied to the final movement, but this was much flashier, the composer-as-soloist thrilling his audience with a virtuosic final movement. Although the piece was from Mendelssohn's pen, the rondo recalled Mozart's own concertos. The encore, Chopin's famous Nocturne No. 2 in E flat minor cast its brief spell over audience members wise enough to linger.

The Jupiter was brisk and colorful under Mr. Manze's baton. The timpani thumped out the opening rhythm with authority, an idea that was later picked up by Beethoven. Bright colors were splashed from the woodwinds and horns, over expert support from the strings. In the finale, (which shares its theme with a certain obscure canon that the composer wrote based on a famous quote from Goethe) the rich good humor of that simple motif burst out repeatedly. As Mr. Manze led the Festival Orchestra in the final fugue, one sensed a joy in Mozart's inventive writing, which of course is based on the musical ideas of Bach.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.