The Winston-Salem Symphony's most recent "Kicked-Back Classics" concert was the kind of program that surprises even seasoned listeners. Faced with a seemingly homogeneous and potentially boring evening consisting entirely of Mozart, the WSS and guest conductor Edwin Outwater reminded the audience that familiar doesn't necessarily mean drab.
A young and vibrant conductor, Outwater is currently music director of Ontario's Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. He is perhaps best known for his work in the early 2000s alongside music director Michael Tilson-Thomas as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony.
For his visit to the Triad, Outwater brought three contrasting works: the somewhat obscure Divertimento, K. 131, the bright and deft Oboe Concerto in C, and the huge and masterful Symphony No. 38 ("Prague").
Context is important when we try to wrap our heads around music so far displaced in time and culture, so I'll forgive the WSS's gigantic projector screen brightly beaming information about the pieces as we were listening to them.
The six-movement K.131 is an early work that premiered when Mozart was just sixteen. His youth and the work's intended audience of wealthy partygoers make for light listening and uncluttered architecture. There were some early insecurities in the strings. To their credit, the light scoring of this work had them working overtime.
Youthful or not (and drunken aristocrats to entertain or not), this is still Mozart, and the piece held some sly compositional surprises. The interlocking disposition of instruments in the two minuets, the metrical displacement of melodies, the dovetailing of one theme into another, the mysterious appearance and disappearance of soloists – this came from one very well-listened and well-practiced teenage composer.
Even so, this charming work was utterly outshone by the following one. Joining the musicians on stage was the WSS's own principal oboist John Hammarback. With many local appearances, Hammarback is well known to Triad listeners. However, as is true of Mozart's oboe concerto, Hammarback's familiarity belies breathtaking musicianship.
With one sprightly ascending phrase and one gorgeous, sustained high "C," Hammarback had the audience on the edge of their seats.
The oboe is one of those unfortunate instruments with paper-thin boundaries between heavenly and horrid. When addressed with less-than-perfect technique, it promptly expels almost inconceivable screeches and honks.
Hammarback is no ordinary oboist. Elegant yet fiery, controlled yet expressive, he dashed through the concerto with confident professionalism. Every turn, trill, and double-tongue was dynamically sensitive and exquisitely musical. After his first cadenza, it took all my restraint to keep from jumping out of my seat and fist-pumping the air. This, friends, is how Mozart is supposed make you feel.
Following intermission, Outwater and the WSS had one more huge treat – the famous "Prague" symphony from 1786. I could characterize the earlier pieces on the program as somewhat unsophisticated, if clever and rousing. The "Prague," quite to the contrary, is a masterpiece. With effortless grace, Mozart endlessly manipulates simple fragments of material to construct three monumental movements.
The orchestra (perhaps as fired up by Hammarback's performance as we were) had really locked in by this time. Gone were the earlier instabilities as they threw all their energy and musicianship into this deserving work. It positively glowed.
It's somewhat disappointing that a conductor associated with the San Francisco Symphony and its bold, challenging programs (including a famous concert with Metallica) would focus an evening on a composer who probably hasn't offended anyone since the late 18th century. But, given the seemingly binding parameters, Outwater, Hammarback, and the WSS put on a remarkable show. Most highly recommended!
For more information about repeat performances, see the sidebar.