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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Concert Review: Conflagration, Comedy and Crisis

A perfect pair of programs at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Explosante-fixé: Paul Lewis and the parts of a piano.
Photo by Joseph Molina © 2016 harmonia mundi usa.
The Mostly Mozart Festival is celebrating half a century of providing refuge to New Yorkers coping with the city's erratic August temperatures with air-cooled concert halls and skilled performances of classical and early Romantic repertory. Two of those programs were on offer Tuesday night, with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra offering their first symphonic concert at David Geffen Hall this year, and Paul Lewis playing Schubert and Brahms upstairs in the elegant glass confines of the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse.

The orchestra concert featured the Festival debut of conductor Thierry Fischer, a late substitute for Andres Orozco-Estrada. (He bowed out due to a back problem.) Mr. Fischer is the music director of the Utah Symphony, and has helped place that Salt Lake City-based ensemble on the musical map of the western United States. He led a carefully controlled burn through Haydn's "Fire" Symphony, controlling the leaping flames that erupted from the pair of French horns, and banking the glowing embers in the strings.

The conductor was joined by pianist Martin Helmchen for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, a work that showed the younger composer engaging in some very Haydn-esque high jinks at the keyboard.  For reasons of fate, this is the last of the great Mozart piano concertos, and it seems that the composer threw in everything he knew: quirky rhythms, singing lines in the solo instrument and accompanying winds, and a genuine sense of fun through its three movements.

The entry of Mr. Helmchen with the solo part was like Charlie Chaplin shuffling onto the stage. The soloist juggled the opening theme of the orchestra and put the musical material through a dazzling series of maneuvers and tricks. The humor was supported by Mozart's serious craftsmanship of this opening sonata. The central slow movement featured the winds even more prominently, singing with the piano through a quirky Andante. Mr. Fischer and Mr. Helmchen brought the finale home in a brilliant display of musicianship, as the Rondo (based on a thematic idea from the opera Idomeneo) turned into a serious minor mode before bursting out in bright and exuberant C Major.

Every Mozart lover knows, adores and revels in the Symphony No. 40 in G minor. This is one of Mozart's most serious and somber creations, its four movements probing dark territories at great length. Mr. Fischer conducted a sober performance, sticking closely to the composer's marked rhythms and observing the knotty repeats in the slow movement. The Scherzo had a sense of crisis hidden in its dance rhythms. The rushing, charging, grinding finale brought the whole work home with the sense of crisis averted--at least for the moment.

Following the concert, audience members trooped across the plaza and over the bridge to the Rose Building, boarding elevators for the Kaplan Penthouse. In this elegant space, wine and Pellegrino were served and tables and the vast windows were adorned with votive candles. The artist for this atmosphere was Paul Lewis, a major advocate for the piano works of Schubert. He offered a short program: Schubert's early, experimental Sonata in B Major and four Brahms ballades.

In the Schubert, Mr. Lewis caught the sound of the young genius finding his feet, as the first movement experiments repeatedly on its thematic material in an ever-more-complex set of variations in a shifting series of keys. The Andante continued the experiment, subjecting the rhythms of the opening movement to further variation on a road into what was at the time, uncharted musical territory. The Scherzo and final fast movement had a Viennese character and rhythm, racing itself to a bright and brilliant close.

Brahms' Ballades are very experimental, flirting with the chromatic chord structures of Liszt and Wagner and providing the challenge of telling four short stories with the keyboard alone. The first of these centered around a deep, penetrating chord: the sound of a sword biting flesh. The later works were more playful and introspective, with the fourth wandering into mists of tonal dissolution that inspired the later music of Debussy and Schoenberg. Mr. Lewis obliged his admirers with a brief and equally mystifying encore: the late Allegretto in C minor by Schubert.

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