Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Mozart in Cleveland
Thursday evening, while two miles west of Severance Hall another home team played (and lost) in a record-setting sixteen innings, the Cleveland Orchestra played and won.
As always, it was a team effort, but a few key players stood out.
We have to start with a veteran, one who practically invented the game — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. From start to finish, the game was his. First, there was the showy Piano Concerto #9 ("Jeunehomme"), written in Salzburg at the age of twenty: young, but no rookie in the competitive world of European music-making. Then, from a few years later, a serene wind octet, the Serenade in E flat. And as a closer, the complex, splendid work of Mozart's maturity, the often-heard Piano Concerto #21 in C.
Unlike the contest at Progressive Field, this one ended on time and with a very happy home-team crowd.
Not quite a full-time name in the starting lineup, but well known to Clevelanders all the same, was the MVP, pianist/conductor Mitsuko Uchida. Sensitive and confident, utterly secure in passage work, energetic and lyrical by turns, she packed these familiar concertos with beauties, pleasures and surprises. The famous slow movement of the C major concerto — over-used decades ago in the tear-jerker film Elvira Madigan — shed its mantle of sentimentality for a more thoughtful, even tragic garb in Uchida's intelligent hands.
Uchida's rapport with the orchestra shone through the performances, which she conducted from the keyboard. Her style was part of the music's rhythmic energy — playing a phrase, shooting up from the piano bench, her hands a-flutter as if they were finding notes in space in the active passages or, in the sombre parts, turned palm upwards as if imploring the gods (or the musicians?).
Another candidate for MVP was the orchestra's new Hamburg Steinway, gleaming and lidless at the center of the stage. A gift of Daniel and Jan Lewis, the piano is rich in tone, responsive to Mozartian nuance but also strong-voiced, well attuned to the soundscape of Severance. In the Andantino of the "Jeunehomme" concerto, the intense, quiet coloration of the new instrument allowed the solo part (perhaps playing with the soft pedal?) to gleam through the dark muted strings like the glow of old gold in the depths of a cave.
Finally, bravo to the orchestra's wind players, an octet ensemble of pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons, who played the E-flat Serenade as a conductorless ensemble. The gorgeous central Adagio was truly a "serenade," an "evening-piece" that reminded me of the forgiveness episode in the moonlit finale of Figaro, where time seems to stand still. Leading the ensemble in terms both of tempo and of expressiveness was principal clarinet Franklin Cohen, who throws every phrase with accuracy and spin and ever-renewing soulfulness.
Kudos also to Peter Laki's informative and helpful program notes. We are so lucky to have them: in the words of the old saw, you can't tell the players without the program.