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Friday, August 8, 2014

Concert Review: Future to Past

The violinist Christian Tetzlaff at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Photo © 2014 by Klaus Rudolph.
The month-long Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center is usually where listeners go to escape accidental exposure to any works that might have been written in the past 200 years. The festival's focus is, after all Mozart with occasional leavenings of Beethoven and Bach. So it was a surprise that Wednesday's concert opened with a piece by...Alfred Schnittke?

Schnittke is one of the most important Russian composers of the Soviet era, a fierce experimentalist whose symphonies and quartets followed in the wake of Shostakovich. This program opened with his 1976 work Moz-Art à la Haydn in its version for 11 string players plus two violin soloists.  Starting in almost-total darkness, the string players of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra opened with single notes, a fragment of an unfinished Mozart composition Music to a Carnival Pantomime

This tapestry-thread was picked up, echoed and expanded by the remaining players. Two principals took the lead, trading lines on the dim stage as the work incorporated more quotations, including (most obviously) the Symphony No. 40. At its climax, the musicians stop playing and file slowly off, a neo-classical tribute to Haydn's Symphony No. 45, the Farewell. As the lights were brought down, only the conductor Louis Langrée and the principal bass were left to finish the final notes.

The audience seemed more receptive to the next piece: Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 1 Played here with a full, rich vibrato and a youthful freshness by soloist Christian Tetzlaff, this is one of the first important works of the composer's early maturity, having been written and premiered when Mozart was just 17 years old and already a household name.

In his performing career, Mozart wrote works like this to have music to play on tour. Mr. Tetzlaff delved into this violin's eloquent solo line, freely exploring the cadenzas and harmonic complexities of the first movement. He murmured gentle thoughts during the slow movement and raced up to giddy heights in the fast rondo finale. He then invited the Festival Orchestra to join him for his encore (the Rondo in C K. 373) stating that he'd rather play "with this wonderful orchestra" than play a solo work.

The second half of the concert opened with an actual Haydn piece: the Overture to the opera L'Isola Disabitatta. Written for the patronage bubble of the Esterházy court, this opera has failed to hold the stage due to a questionable libretto. The overture, with its imaginative, stormy passages for low instruments and a pell-mell central theme that returns again and again to invigorate the listener is a perfect Haydn construction, played here with fire and great affection by the Festival Orchestra.

The Prague Symphony followed. A Mozart staple and the first of his "mature" symphonic period, this work was written for that Czech city right after it enthusiastically embraced Le Nozze di Figaro. This performance found the Festival players on a bit of an autopilot, as if they were content to merely point out the highlights and memorable moments of this brilliant score. Even the famous last movement seemed to lack energy and drive. Perhaps the orchestra should continue its exploration of lesser-known repertory. This was beautifully colored but had the feeling of Paint-by-Numbers.
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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.