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On Thursday, July 7, 2016, a reduced NC Symphony performed an all-Mozart concert (repeated at noon on Friday July 8) at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. Conductor David Glover led the orchestra in three works in a short, light-spirited evening of informal music-making.
Usually, in the regular season, the programs are quite detailed, with information about the music and musicians; however here, in the summer, the program was extremely brief, which – while economical – did detract from the level of information provided to the audience. It wouldn't have been that hard to add a page, and this would have added greatly to the concert experience. We should get information about the music and a list of the performing musicians.
The first piece was the Overture to The Impresario, K.486. This short comic singspiel dates from 1786, at the same time Mozart wrote Le nozze di Figaro, so his powers were fully mature. The short opera is an early instance of what is known as a "show show"(Schauspiel in German). The plot centers on the political and ego interactions between an impresario and two competing singers. (This kind of plot has been mined on many occasions, no doubt fueled by much experience by those putting on productions.) The NC Symphony did a fine job bringing out the details of articulation. David Glover did not over-conduct, and his gestures were in proper scale to the occasion and forces involved.
The second piece was the three-movement Divertimento in D, K.136. This early work, from 1772, when Mozart was all of 16 years old, is once again a very light-natured piece, scored for strings only. The challenge for a selection like this, originally performed by string quartet or very small sections, was that this was a fairly large string orchestra (even with reduced numbers) in a concert hall well suited to full orchestras playing Mahler. As a result, the kind of definition and clarity one would hope for under ideal conditions are very hard to produce. However, given that compromise, this was a fun performance, with appropriate and lively tempos and sensitivity to dynamics and balance. In this early work, in conformity with the style of the day, the main activity is between the first and second violins, with the lower strings relegated to very simple figures and many repeated notes. A composer trying that these days would get many complaints! And any 16-year-old composition student would be sent back to the practice room by his teacher. But we could sit back and enjoy this elegant diversion in this delightful rendition.
The third piece, following without intermission, was the great Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550, from 1788. The orchestration allows for two different versions; this evening we had the larger of the two, which is for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. (Note that there are no trumpets or tympani, much like the orchestration of the Impresario overture.) Despite the small forces, this is an impressive work of central importance to the orchestral canon, with its sister symphonies 39 and 41.
The challenge with programming a warhorse is the inevitable comparisons to other performances chosen from the long list of recordings and memories of other concerts. (While Toscanini may have warned that tradition was just the last bad performance, he faced the same situation, no less because of his many performances of the same music.) Conductors bring their own flavor to this score and take the opportunity to apply a give-and-take to the rhythms – adding rubato as needed in several places. David Glover did this to a very minimal extent, choosing instead to conduct for the most part in strict tempos in each of the movements. To the more experienced ears in the audience, this might have been a touch disappointing, especially in the third movement, where the trio and ending really needed some delicacy, and in the last movement, with its striking dissonances and dramatic brief silences.
One quibble this reviewer had with this performance was the tempo of the second movement, marked "Andante." This was taken at a relatively brisk pace, which effectively robbed the work of a slow movement. Even though this is not a long symphony, it still needs a chance to breathe and have a variety of pace. It is hard to imagine that Mozart's intention was to have four up-tempo movements.
The fourth movement is notable for being the most adventurous in harmonic language of all of Mozart's orchestral works, rivaling his "Dissonaten" string quartet (No. 19, in C, K.465). The second half of the last movement starts off with a unison passage that is very nearly a twelve-tone row. In fact, this reviewer has written Mozart's Twelve-Tone Row, for either violin and piano or full orchestra, placing this part of the last movement in twenty-first century context. (Those interested may take a look and listen here and here.
All in all, this was an enjoyable short evening concert after a hot day, appreciated by the audience and very well suited to the time and place.
This program will be repeated at noon on July 8. For details, see the sidebar.