Thursday, November 05, 2015

Symphony Preivew: All roads lead to Mozart

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Nicholas McGegan, who is conducting the St. Louis Symphony in a program of (mostly) Mozart this weekend, is clearly a man who enjoys his work. When I've seen him conduct the orchestra, he practically bounds out to the podium, his face alight with a cherubic smile. His body language shouts: "this is going to be FUN!" And so it always is.

Mozart, party animal
That couldn't be more appropriate for Mozart, a fellow who certainly knew how to enjoy himself. The portrait of Mozart as a potty-mouthed party animal in Peter Shaffer's popular play "Amadeus" may be distorted, but it's a distortion based on reality. Even as a child, some of Mozart's letters home were, as Brockway and Weinstock write in "Men of Music," "so coarse (to our taste but not to that of the eighteenth century) that their editors have scarcely left on unbowdlerized. Mozart is often in high, and very often in ribald, spirits."

Those high spirits are clearly in evidence from the very beginning of the "Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major," K. 271, that closes the first half of this weekend's concerts. "This is an astonishing and delightful opening," writes Charles Rosen of the Allegro first movement in "The Classical Style, "surprising not only for its use of the soloist at the very outset, but also for the wit with which he enters, as he replies to the orchestral fanfare." The second movement is dramatic and even tragic, but the Rondeau: Presto finale, with an unexpectedly graceful minuet in the middle, once again shows Mozart in jolly form.

The soloist for the concerto is Music Director David Robertson's wife, Orli Shaham. A frequent guest at Powell, Ms. Shaham is a versatile pianist, as comfortable with contemporary music as she is with the established classics. She also has a theatrical keyboard style that's fun to watch, which should mesh nicely with Mr. McGegan's exuberance.

The other Mozart music on the program is a bit more solemn: three entr'actes written in 1774 for the five-act drama "Thamos, King of Egypt" by Tobias Philipp, baron von Gebler. The play is filled with skullduggery and backstabbing in ancient Egypt, so Mozart's incidental music is appropriately dramatic. "Gebler’s play," writes John Henken in program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "is a Masonic allegory, and though not yet a Mason himself, Mozart gave it much of the expressive symbolism he later lavished on The Magic Flute. This is particularly apparent in the first Interlude, with its richly rhetorical chords, slippery chromaticism, muscular tension, and its contrast of light and dark." Whether or not Mozart ever saw a production of the play with his music is unknown.

Haydn in 1792
Artist: Joseph Hardy
Also on the bill this weekend is the "Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major," written in 1792 by Mozart's older contemporary (and admirer) Joseph Haydn. It was part of a dozen symphonies (the last ones he wrote, in fact) composed for a pair of trips to London in the last decade of the eighteenth century that were highly successful, both in terms of critical reception and income. It's notable for, among other things, a second movement that might contain a passing reference to the British national anthem. "The slow movement," writes Philip Huscher in program notes for the Chicago Symphony, "opens with a veiled reference to the first two phrases of 'God save the King,' which Haydn had heard played by a wind band 'in the street during a wild snowstorm' while he was putting the finishing touches on the symphony. Donald Tovey, the British critic and writer, thought that the slow movement, which toys with quoting from Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, was Haydn’s way of paying homage to his friend. Whatever Haydn’s intent, this music is like a great hymn."

The symphony is also notable for its final movement. "At the very end," writes Mr. Huscher, "Haydn uncharacteristically takes the spotlight. Since it was still Haydn’s habit in 1792 to conduct his symphonies from the keyboard, where he would normally provide the unobtrusive harmonies of the continuo part, he wrote a few measures of rippling arpeggios for himself to play. Like all of Haydn’s inside jokes, it’s over in a flash. Apparently the London audience loved it, for, as Haydn’s journal boasted, in a newly learned English that would have impressed Mozart, 'the new Symphony in B-flat was given, and the first and last Allegros encort.'" Playing the role of Haydn this weekend will be Ms. Shaham. Somehow, I don't think she quite looks the part of a 60-year-old Austrian, but I expect her performance will make you forget that.

Gluck in 1775
Artist: Joseph Duplessis
The concerts open with thirteen dances from Christoph Willibald Gluck's 1761 ballet "Don Juan," as arranged by Mr. McGegan. As Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, Gluck's ballet is based on Molière's play "Le Festin de pierre" ("The Stone Guest"), many elements of which would find their way into Lorenzo DaPonte's libretto for Mozart's "Don Giovanni" over two decades later. "The most arresting music," notes Mr. Schiavo, "comes at the end of the ballet, when the preternatural statue confronts Don Juan and effects his doom. Here furious scale figures, piercing harmonies and menacing tones of the wind instruments make for strong musical drama."

Compared to what Gluck's contemporaries were writing back then, those final movements are highly arresting and melodramatic. Audiences seem to have found it to be rather strong stuff, though. "Gluck’s audience," wrote David Hurwitz in a 2009 article for "Listen" magazine, "was fascinated by the work, as much for the dancing and decor as for the music itself. It exercised a certain horrid fascination — some listeners actually found the piece ugly, but still couldn’t resist it." He goes on to observe that "Gluck’s music inspired a whole new generation of composers. Mozart’s own 'hell scene' in Don Giovanni reveals the clear influence of Gluck’s earlier effort, and not just because it’s in the same key. It is the music’s expressive intensity that links the two composers."

This weekend, it seems, all roads lead to Mozart.

The Essentials: Nicholas McGegan conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with piano soloist Orli Shaham, on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., November 6 and 7. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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