Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: The Hartford Symphony Orchestra celebrates “The Genius of Mozart”

On Saturday night, D and I enjoyed an all-Mozart concert given by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. HSO Concertmaster Leonid Sigal was violin soloist and conductor. 

The program included pairs of works drawn from the earliest and latest periods of Mozart’s career: the first and the last symphonies (No.1, K16, E-flat Major, 1764; and No.41, K551, C Major, 1788), and early and late concerti (Violin Concerto No.3, G Major, K216, 1775; and the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K622, 1791). This nicely-balanced program afforded an opportunity to appreciate Mozart’s early talent and marvel at his mature works.

Here’s my review of the evening's performance.

The performance followed the order listed in the program book (K16, K622, K216, K551), but the program notes were arranged in a different order (K16, K216, K622, K41). Why? And honestly, I’m tired of the program notes by Richard Rodda. They are very inexpensive to purchase (I have a set of his notes on CD – just $50), and probably inexpensive to license. But they contain errors now and then (e.g., mistaking Helena and Blanziflor for a romantic couple in his Carmina Burana notes), the occasional grammatical blooper, and some oddly hyperbolic assessments (“Mozart was the greatest genius in the history of music”). It's time to find a fresh voice for the program annotiations.

The orchestra was nicely small (8-8-5-7 in the strings, with horns and winds per Mozart). I love the color, brilliance, and sheer volume of a large orchestra, but I enjoy hearing a smaller ensemble, too. There was very nice playing from the strings throughout.

Dennis and I noted, and relished, a tremendous dynamic range across the evening, starting with the HSO’s first-ever performance of Mozart’s first symphony, a lively and well-crafted work. To his credit, Mr. Sigal gave this little symphony the same attention and care that he invested in the mighty “Jupiter” that closed the program; he led with verve and conviction, and the ensemble responded nicely.

In the Violin Concerto, Mr. Sigal led the orchestra and played the solo part. He remained front and center, turning his back entirely to the orchestra during his solo passages, and entirely to the audience during the orchestral interludes. It was an odd sort of dance, which could have been minimized had he stood more to the side, from where he would have only needed to make half- or quarter-turns. It was a distraction. His playing, as always, was brilliant; his large, warm tone and impeccable technique are always a delight, and I am grateful for his tasteful vibrato. That said, his big Romantic sound was almost too large for this early concerto, and sometimes seemed a poor fit with the nice early Classical tone produced by the small orchestra. My overall enjoyment of this concerto performance was dashed by Mr. Sigal’s choice of cadenzas. This relatively short concerto, which is one of Mozart’s earliest mature works, might be understood as quintessential early Classical music. Within this context, the cadenzas were as suitable to the concerto as a large sour dill pickle would be next to a cream-filled Austrian pastry. The cadenzas, which were obviously composed long after Mozart’s time, were very lengthy, highly chromatic, and wholly anachronistic. Oh, they were beautiful, and were certainly a showcase for Mr. Sigal’s prodigious skills (all that double stopping!), but they were entirely out of place musically and artistically. I wondered who composed them, and when.

(And why do program notes so often fail to note the composers of cadenzas? Easy: It’s because too often, as in the case of the HSO, organizations purchase “canned” program notes. There is little motivation to insert details of the local performances, such as information about cadenzas, and in some cases, the license agreements with the program note authors may prevent editing the notes. The audience is not well served.)

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is perhaps my favorite piece of music, post-Bach. HSO Principal Clarinetist Curt Blood seems to possess an innate understanding of this extraordinary music: his rendition was flawless, not only in its technical execution, but in the astonishing subtlety that he brought to our ears in all three movements, but especially in the Adagio; it was really extraordinary. I wept through most of that movement, and smiled through my tears all through the concluding rondo. The smaller orchestra was especially welcome for this concerto, as it enabled Mr. Blood to explore the complete dynamic range of his instrument without being buried in a wash of sound. This nice balance was especially effective during the Adagio, in the exchange of those simple, heart-breaking, falling phrases… Mr. Blood played without affect (meaning that in the best way), letting Mozart speak for himself. It was just a perfect performance.

The familiar “Jupiter” Symphony sounded fresh and exciting; I credit this to the small size of the ensemble, which enabled us to hear every strand of counterpoint and discern the colors from the brass and winds. I heard details that are too often swallowed up in over-large, over-lush string sections. In the multi-themed extravaganza of that extraordinary last movement, we catch a glimpse of Mozart’s --- what? genius? intellect? gift? artistry? All those. Here Mozart almost rivals Bach in intensity and brilliance. The orchestra dug into all that counterpoint with energy and obvious enjoyment, offering a thrilling conclusion to the evening.

In general, Mr. Sigal’s conducting was a pleasure; he was present and effective when needed, but generally out of the way when not needed. To my taste, too many conductors seem to think that a stint on the podium is a “star” opportunity; I find their antics self-serving and distracting. Mr. Sigal never distracted from the music; he led the ensemble with precision and economy that served the music and showed respect for the players. The strings played beautifully, with a sense of unity and clarity that I don't always hear when more, um, colorful conductors are on the podium.

Oh, and one more thing - I love love love the viola. So of course I watch, and listen for, the viola section more than any other. I wish the HSO’s five (why only five???) violas had been seated on the outside instead of buried between the second violins and celli. As I wrote to one of my friends who plays in the viola section: “It was neat to watch you doubling melodies and inner voices with the violins, then picking up the bass lines with the celli, and sometimes (too rarely!) offering an independent line. I will never understand why viola sections are always so much smaller than the two violin sections and the celli, especially as the violas have a gentler tone More violas please!”

Because we bought our tickets rather late, we had a limited choice of seats, and we ended up in the sixth row in the outside the orchestra section, which allowed great looks at the celli and first violins but little else. Through a little “window” in the cello section I could see the violas. :-) After intermission, we moved to some vacant seats in the center section; better, but still too close. I prefer to sit in the back of the hall, where the overall sound is more blended, but also allows for hearing the instruments seated toward the rear of the ensemble.

Let me take a moment to note that during the evening, we were not distracted by talking, eating, whispering, coughing, noisy candy wrappers, sniffing, kicking of seats, or the buzzing, dinging, and glowing of cell phones. Thank you, fellow audience members.

All in all, it was a terrific concert. Aside from the quibbles with the out-of-place cadenzas, most of the performance seemed just right. We went home happy.

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