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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Concert Review: Famous Last Words

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra plays Beethoven and Haydn.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Watch out for that tree: pianist Steven Osborne.
Photo by Eric Richmond © 2014 from the artist's website 
The term "classical" music takes its name from the so-called "classical" era, from 1774 to 1827. This was a time where composers became interested in writing structured works that adhered to their perception of architectural perfection in the Greek and Roman ("classic") style. These composers, which include Gluck, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven became masters of putting beautiful content into strict form and their work still endures like those ruins in Italy and Greece.

On Friday night, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra presented a concert featuring the fifth and final piano concerto by Beethoven and the 104th and final symphony of Franz Josef Haydn, two composers who were contemporaries of Mozart and who remain among the most important music creators of the so-called "classical" period. The concert, conducted by Andrew Manze was the first of two featuring this particular program.

Steven Osborne made his Festival debut as the featured soloist in the Emperor, the longest and in many ways the most challenging of the Beethoven concertos. Playing against the smaller Mostly Mozart orchestra, he opted for a dry, slightly academic approach. This "anti-heroic" approach to this music met the technical and musical challenges of the three movements with intelligence and  equanamity from the big cadenzas to the moments when piano and orchestra lines interweave and unite.

Mr. Manze supplied expert support, giving the piano a warm bed of instruments to ride over and bringing out the excellent qualities of the Festival Orchestra's horns and woodwinds. However, the first two movements were spoiled by unexpected electronic solo instruments in the orchestra: the bleating, persistent tones of cell phones in the possession of inconsiderate concert-goers. The third movement, interruption-free, was splendidly realized.

The second half of the concert featured Haydn's Symphony No. 104, the one of his cycle of symphonies written for London in 1795 that holds the nickname "London." The last and in some ways the most experimental of Haydn's symphonies, it was written as  Haydn was completing a second residency in that city and a cycle of twelve symphonies for the promoter Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn would live for another 14 years in Vienna but he would never write another symphony.

This work moves away some of the composer's trademark humor and lightness, twisting it slightly and as a result breaking new ground. Following the somber, heavy (and very Beethovenian) introduction, the Festival Orchestra and Mr. Manze delved into the central fast theme of the opening movement , bringing the textures and rhythms to life with graceful playing and precise pressed-and-folded strings. Mr. Manze worked hard to resolve the conflicting musical material, bringing the whole ensemble to an accord at the recapitulation before launching into the coda.

Although he followed the strict conventions of classical form, Haydn ornamented the music in unusual ways. He added bits like the thunderous tremolo for brass and percussion, and the three-part dance that lurches and judders in a way that anticipates Gustav Mahler. In the finale, the orchestra found the thread of heroic determination that showed the path for Beethoven, engaging in a witty, fearless Rondo that hurdled to a giddy close.
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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.