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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Concert Review: The Hard Road to the Heavens

Mostly Mozart takes on Beethoven's Ninth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda returned to Mostly Mozart last week.
Photo © 2013 by Dan Porges.
The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra refocused itself on Beethoven last night, with the first of two concerts pairing the composer's rarely heard Overture for the Consecration of the House with the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, at once the most difficult, radical and best known work in the entire symphonic repertory.

These concerts featured the welcome return of conductor Gianandrea Noseda to the Festival podium, and the welcome idea of using the medium-sized Festival Orchestra (the whole ensemble is about 1/3 smaller than the standard symphonic band) to explore Beethoven's heaviest music. (The orchestra is performing a similar experiment during the festival with Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique.)

This stripped approach served very well in the opening overture. Mr. Noseda drove the orchestra like a Formula One race car, navigating the slow start, fast middle section and rapid twists and turns that followed as Beethoven combined his two main thematic ideas into a unified and cohesive whole. Indeed, this Overture, never among the more popular Beethoven programming choices showed considerable virtue, thanks to burnished playing from the expanded brass section and clean, precise string playing.

Mr. Noseda opted for just a brief pause to bring the choristers onstage before launching into the first movement of the Ninth. The famous tremolo string introduction sounded haunted and even plaintive when played by just sixteen instruments, with supple brass and the whole orchestra answering and launching the thematic material at full force. Indeed, that sense of real personal struggle permeated this performance as the conductor took the listener along Beethoven's difficult road.

The second movement (Scherzo) was playful and powerful, with tight, punchy rhythms from the timpani (played with hard sticks) and the dancing strings. The trio featured some really beautiful horn playing. As with the first movement, the Mostly Mozart audience applauded, showing appreciation for the performance but poor concert etiquette.

Mr. Noseda set a steady, reflective pace in the Adagio, drawing forth gorgeous colors in the horns, woodwinds and cellos. This movement is marked cantabile and the strings and oboes sang aria-like lines against the shifting, flowing bass. The song-lines built to a firm, brassy climax featuring the trumpets, a hint of the mighty shout of humanity that waited in the finale.

With a smaller orchestra, the deliberate key-clash double tutti that starts the last movement does not quite have the same power. But there was perfect clarity in the recitative, a dialogue between basses, cellos and the rest of the orchestra that looks back on the first three movements before settling on the central theme of the Ode. When the voices came in (led by Russian bass and frequent Noseda collaborator Ildar Abdrazakov) the energy level in the room jumped considerably.

The four soloists for this performance, Mr. Abdrazakov, tenor Russell Thomas, soprano Erika Grimaldi, and mezzo Anna Maria Chiuri were placed to the left of the conductor in front of the assembled chorus. However, balance problems between the various forces meant that the text did not come through as clearly as it could have, and the orchestral assault rendered Ms. Chiuri inaudible. However, the Turkish March, with a fine solo from Mr. Thomas and the march-propelled forward drive of the big thematic t reprisal were well executed. This paved the way for the giant double fugue that brought the symphony and the listener into the starry reaches and then crashing down to earth in a riotous dash through the coda.
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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.