Concert in Costa Mesa, California

2006-09-19 / Orange County Register / Timothy Mangan

The Magic of Mozart

The Philharmonic Society opens its season in the new concert hall with a visit from the composer’s hometown orchestra.

With the dust still settling after world premieres and opening galas, regular life got under way at Segerstrom Concert Hall on Sunday. The day was devoted to Mozart, whose 250th anniversary it is. First, in the afternoon, there was a program for toddlers, who watched a Mozart video in the new venue and no doubt put some patina on the place.

Then, in the evening, the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg arrived to officially open the season for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which, in addition to a number of other events, presents some 10 touring orchestras in our little acoustical wonderland this year. In the lobby, the Society mounted a little display of Mozart first editions and facsimile manuscripts. Also on view was the first article ever written about Mozart in the English language, dating to his 8th year.
It was good to hear some Mozart from the source, as it were. The Mozarteum Orchestra was founded in the composer’s Austrian hometown in 1841, 50 years after his death, and supposedly with the help of his widow, Constanze (who died the next year), and his two sons Franz Xaver and Karl Thomas. Never mind that Mozart pretty much hated his hometown and that it didn’t treat him well (or the Archbishop Colloredo, his employer there, didn’t – Mozart dubbed him the arch-booby.”) This orchestra has been making up for it since.

The program Sunday focused naturally enough on Mozart exclusively (though the orchestra does play other music, including new music). It opened and closed with the first and last symphonies – that’s K. 16, written by the 8-year-old in London, and K. 551, the “Jupiter” – sandwiching the Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, and a couple of arias from “Zaide,” K. 344.

With Britisher Ivor Bolton, the orchestra’s principal conductor since 2004, on the podium, it was all pleasant enough. The Philharmonic Society has limited control over the repertoire of the touring groups it presents, but still, this program was hardly earth-shattering, especially coming on the first weekend of the new hall. It was pleasant, but not a whole lot more.

Bolton, who has made something of a specialty of Baroque opera, seemed to be enforcing, at times, some of the now more common musical practices given to us by the period-instrument movement – i.e., the use of non-vibrato string playing and curt phrasing. I say “seemed” because it was a little hard to tell in the rich, reverberant acoustic, which equalized a lot of the string tone colors. Everything sounded a bit plump.

The orchestra, which has been slaving away at the Salzburg Festival for the past several weeks, is obviously comfortable in this repertoire; its playing has an easy and lived-in quality. It performs Mozart in an unmannered way, straightforward and robust, which is the best way.

The Symphony No. 1 is not only a small miracle composed by a kid, but an entertaining piece of music, period (wonder why we never hear it). The opening gambit of chords, a delicious progression of dissonances, startles to this day. The second movement, too, with its play of rhythmic twos against threes, shows the boy already with a keen dramatic understanding of the arrangement of mere notes on a page. The gymnastic leap of the main theme in the finale is immediately balanced by a smooth-limned answer – a premonition of the “Jupiter” Symphony’s opening 24 years later. Yes, he was Mozart from the get go.

Pianists Louis Lortie and Angela Hewitt, Canadians both, offered a shapely traversal of the Two-Piano Concerto that became better and better as it progressed, their camaraderie ever more evident. I have written recently about the particular jewel that is the second movement, a kind of love duet for the pianists, and these two virtuosos tossed handfuls of aural flower petals to each other.

The 31-year-old German soprano Mojca Erdmann made her North American debut singing two arias from the incomplete singspiel(an opera with spoken dialogue) “Zaide.” The peaceful “Ruhe, sanft mein holdes Leben” (“Rest gently, my tender love”) and the vengeful “Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen” (“Tiger! Sharpen your claws”) made a sharply contrasting pair, demonstrating the lovely purity of Erdmann’s voice, with its easy flips up to high notes, as well as its zing. The hall put a lovely halo on her tone.

Bolton launched the “Jupiter” with a military crispness and his musicians dug in and swayed in their seats for the remainder. In these early days of the new venue, it’s still difficult to avoid assessing the hall’s characteristics along with the music and performances. In the famous finale – a veritable landmark of music history in itself, in which Mozart seamlessly melds the contrapuntal mastery of Bach with his own galantstyle – the fugato passages lacked the definition that they deserve. Still, it wasn’t total mush, either, and conductor and orchestra worked the music up to a sweat, and our ears as well.

A couple of rare encores capped the evening nicely: They were the giddily playful March in D, K. 335, No. 1, and the magical Andante from the Cassation, K. 63, the work of a 13-year-old.”