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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Concert Review: His Aim is True

Edward Gardner energizes Mostly Mozart
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The always serene Edward Gardner in 2013 at the BBC Proms.
Photo © 2013 The British Broadcasting Company.
Sometimes a fresh baton is needed. That was the case this Friday evening at the Mostly Mozart Festival, where conductor Edward Gardner stepped up to lead the Festival Orchestra in familiar works by Mozart (natch) Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. Although this program, featuring guest pianist Steven Osborne was nothing out of the ordinary for such a long-running event, but the musicians seemed to be playing with fresh energy and vigor.

In the years before the rise of Wagner, it was Weber who ushered German opera further along the difficult path from singspiel to music drama. And the opera that caught the public's imagination was Der Freischütz. A folksy retelling of the Faust legend, Freischütz (the title roughly translates to "The Free-shooter") featuring a hapless huntsman who sells his soul to the black spirit of the forest in exchange for a handful of magic bullets, it caught the imagination of the public thanks to an inventive score and a series of rousing, memorable tunes.

Mr. Gardner conducted this overture in a brilliant performance that emphasized the bold hunting horns at the back ranks of the orchestra. The spirited, complex writing for massed violins was played with gusto, with the woodwinds supplying delicate detail when needed. New York audiences have not seen this opera in decades, and its unfamiliarity was made obvious when a few attendees clapped out loud during one of the dramatic pauses in the last section of the overture.

Mozart expanded his orchestra and his horizons with the Piano Concerto No. 24, one of only two Mozart concertos written in the minor key. Its stormy opening and eloquent first voicing for the piano serves as a precursor of Beethoven's later advances in the genre. The expanded woodwinds (two oboes and two clarinets, all four players have ample opportunity to be heard) make for a much richer and more developed orchestral palette. The enormous first movement is a test for any soloist, requiring the composer's own level of pianistic skill to execute successfully.

Yet for all the pre-Romantic fire that burns in the pages of this work, this was a sober and even restrained performance from Mr. Gardner and soloist Steven Osborne. Sober and considered, Mr. Osborne used great control of his wrists and fingers to deliver each note with an almost equal dynamic, sounding at times as if he was playing a harpsichord. The central Larghetto with its limpid theme was phrased with simple elegance. The Allegretto finale was an ever-more-complex set of variations. Mr. Gardner and his  players emphasized the skipping main rhythm and Mr. Osborne made the most of the off-the-beat solo interjections.

If one were to divide the nine Beethoven symphonies into "major" (3, 5, 6, 9) and "minor" (1, 2, 4, 8) the Symphony No. 7 would fall squarely in the middle. The Seventh is written on a heroic scale, yet it celebrates not struggle but laughter, not anguish but the alleviation of pain through the joy of music and the infectious laughter that comes with the simple pleasures of dance. Mr. Gardner and his orchestra understood that and delivered a bold and captivating performance of this famous symphony, thrilling listeners with this tour of Beethoven at his most engaging.

The hushed, mysterious opening was followed by what Wagner called the "apotheosis of the dance", a vigorous main subject that pulls the listener out of the doldrums and into a sudden whirl of vital celebration. The bold, heroic Larghetto engaged the listener in the struggle, a slow, plodding figure that changed voices in the orchestra emerging in an anguished outburst from the horns. The last two movements brought the celebration back, with Mr. Gardner urging and egging his players on to great heights, the symphony as a cosmic joke with a punch line that leaves an audience smiling.

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