Monday, April 29, 2013

How strange the change from major to minor

Scott Andrews
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Labadie with clarinet soloist Scott Andrews
What: All-Mozart Program
Where: Powell Symphony Hall
When: April 26 and 27, 2013

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Mozart, as they used to say over at Variety, is clearly “boffo” with St. Louis Symphony audiences. The crowd at Friday morning’s concert was larger than usual and obviously appreciative of Bernard Labadie’s vibrant readings of Mozart’s 33rd and 40th symphonies, as well as with Principal Clarinet Scott Andrew’s elegant work in the Clarinet Concerto, K. 622.

The fans may be conservative, but they know what they like.

Bernard Labadie
And there was quite a lot to like about this concert. As founder of Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, Mr. Labadie has substantial credentials as an interpreter of music of the Baroque and Classical eras. Reviewing a Barbican Center concert with the former ensemble, for example, the Telegraph noted that Labadie “radiates an infectious joy in the music”—a quality much in evidence here. His Mozart also has, to my ears, the kind of vitality I associate with the “original instrument” movement, although Mr. Labadie is not usually associated with that approach.

His Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major (K. 319) was, therefore, a perfect mix of exuberance and precision—very appropriate for a work of (to quote Paul Schiavo’s program notes) “uniformly bright countenance.” Tempi were on the brisk side both here in and in the Symphony No. 40, but the music never felt rushed.

By way of contrast, Mr. Labadie and Mr. Andrews gave us a relaxed and elegant concerto—also very appropriate for a work noted more for its “grace, tenderness, and intimacy” (to quote Mr. Schiavo again) than its virtuoso display. Mr. Andrews is not a particularly showy performer, but was clearly very much caught up in the music, dipping his body for low notes and swaying back and forth in time to the melodies. His tone was beautiful and limpid and his execution flawless.
Basset clarinet

The K. 622 has an interesting history, by the way. The original manuscript, written for Mozart’s friend and fellow Mason Anton Stadler (apparently quite a virtuoso), has been lost. It was written for a special “basset clarinet” invented by Stadler that had an additional major third at the bottom of its range (low C vs. low E). Stadler’s basset clarinet never caught on, though, so when the piece was published after Mozart’s death, it had been modified to fit the range of a standard clarinet.

Subsequent research has enabled musicologists to produce a basset clarinet version of the score, but since so few musicians play this oddball instrument, the modified version (the one performed in these concerts) is the one usually played these days. If you’re curious as to what the restored version sounds like, a 1997 CD by the Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy with Eric Hoeprich on basset clarinet is still in print, and I expect there are others.

Getting back to Powell Hall, the Symphony No. 40 in G minor (K. 550) that concluded the concert was wonderfully urgent and dramatic, with especially marked contrasts between the first and second subjects in the opening movement. This is a symphony that has produced a wide variety of responses from critics and Mozart biographers. Some have emphasized its obvious dark and brooding moods while others have noted what Robert Schumann called its “Grecian lightness and grace.” Personally, I tend to come down on the “dark and brooding” side, so I found Mr. Labadie’s approach completely compelling and convincing.

The musicians sounded great as usual. When performed by an appropriately sized ensemble (36 pieces in this case), the Mozart symphonies are a real test of an orchestra’s capabilities. There aren’t that many players per part, so everyone has to be in top form; there’s no place to hide here. The polished quality of the sound Friday morning was, therefore, yet another testament to this band’s high performance standards.

Next on the calendar: David Robertson returns to the podium along with local favorite soprano Christine Brewer and baritone Lucas Meachem Friday through Sunday, May 3-5. The program consists of the overture to Suppé’s Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, Schubert’s "Unfinished", and the local premiere of Zemlinsky’s 1924 Lyrische Symphonie (Lyric Symphony). For ticket information:

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