January 22nd, 2014, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto ON
- Serenade No. 10, K. 370a/361 “Gran Partita”
- Violin Sonata No. 18, K. 301/293a
- Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
- Louis Lortie, conductor and piano
- Jonathan Crow, violin
There’s a particular flavor to Mozart’s work. He never walks anywhere if he can cartwheel, if you get my meaning. The man was an inveterate showoff, and an indisputable genius.There’s a loose quality and a depth of emotion to his music that is dizzying and somewhat bi-polar. One minute he’s skipping and dancing around the room, the next he’s lulling you into a beatific state of dreamy reverie, and then he’s back again to big loud phrases and incredible dynamics. The crazy thing is that it all seems so easy for him. So complete is his command of the language of music that no mood or effect is out of his reach. You can still feel this power in his art, over 200 years after his death. As TSO Musical Director Peter Oundjian writes in the program brochure, it is this depth and expressiveness that makes Mozart an “eternally fresh” composer.
This evening’s program was the Serenade No. 10 for woodwinds, Sonata No. 18 for piano and violin, and then a concluding performance of the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major (which is a significant key in Mozart’s musical universe). Guest conductor and pianist at this concert was Louis Lortie, an eminent performing conductor. He stepped to the front of the stage to introduce the first item on the program, the massive Serenade No. 10. Pieces of this nature are generally considered chamber music, and so he asked us in the audience to imagine that we were in a much smaller room, which was surprisingly easy in the massive hall. Then he briefly recounted the history of Serenade No. 10 and its popularity due to its use in the film Amadeus.
Serenade No. 10 was part of Mozart’s quest for job stability. As a composer, he was perpetually broke, so he would write certain works specifically for a given market. During the late eighteenth century, smaller ensemble works for woodwinds were becoming very popular in Austria, and Mozart decided to cash in for himself. The effect of this type of music was supposed to be unobtrusive and soothing; essentially, it was intended to be dinner party music. With the staggering Serenade No. 10 and its seven movements, Mozart managed to recast the idea and elevated the form, both in length and in scope. The variation in this work is intense and surprising.
The piece opens with a certain stately grandeur (befitting its purpose), eventually progressing to a lush and soothing middle section. The opening movement, an allegro, contains all the wild dynamics and elaborate up-tempo filigree that seem to have some so easily to Mozart. But he’s just clearing his throat, so to speak. Conductor Louis Lortie was an energetic and engaging performer, with a quirky conducting style that seems well suited to the material. For their part, the ensemble was magical. Responding to every twitch and dramatic flourish of Lortie’s hands, they dug into the material like children in a sandbox. There’s a little twisty pause to the melody at the beginning of each phrase, like an aural curtsy. If this is party music, then this is the part when the guests arrive and are shown into the banquet hall. It’s all very light and pleasant, almost humorous. And of course there are the big dynamic swells that always hint at the immense depth of the composer. But the opening allegro is just a table-setting for the lush and mysterious heart of the Serenade. Mozart does something with the structure of the piece that I loved. After the opening allegro, it quickly segues into a menuetto, then an adagio, then another minuetto, and then another adagio, before the variation movement and the classic rondo finale. It’s an effective bait and switch. Your first impression is that it’s going to be all quick movement and fast melodic development, but he’s just luring you in for the slower parts.
The second movement (the first menuetto) had a kind of elegant feel with an underlying pulse of tension, beautifully rendered by the acoustics of Roy Thompson Hall. Like hints of darkness encroaching on a sunset, the beauty was contrasted with this impending anxiety. The clarinets were particularly impressive in this section, as they carried the bulk of the melody. They used the abundance of space in this section and the rich resonance of the hall to full effect. The range of dynamics in this section was incredible; it built up to a mighty blast, and then settled to the ground like a feather. The bass and oboes did some wonderful swells in this section. It was beautiful and rich. The musicians were in top form. Lortie seemed to particularly enjoy this section, as he waved his arms somewhat cheekily at his ensemble. The third movement (adagio) begins with a simple slow phrase from the lower instruments, before a lone high note emerges like a single ray of light. Enter the clarinets, with a gorgeously slow and peaceful melody. This section is where the true beauty of the piece reveals itself in slow motion. There’s a slight hint of darkness again, like a forgotten memory. Shadows drift through the background, tracking the movement of the light. The clarinets were just heartbreaking, singing these long high phrases to the gently swelling bass and oboes. Another short menuetto movement followed. At times this movement feels bi-polar, alternating between an innocuous, pleasant waltz an oddly dark suspenseful interlude. The conflict is fascinating and beautiful. Next was the last adagio movement. This section was performed beautifully by the Toronto Symphony ensemble, with lovely slow crescendos and precise little jabs of harmony. It’s so soft that you strain to hear the tiniest little details. It’s velvety and tranquil, like waking from a dream. Again the clarinets took the lead. It was like they were competing to see who could play most softly. The final two movements brought the whole thing back to earth, settling into a perfectly graceful landing. It was gorgeous.
The second piece for the evening was a real showcase for Mozart’s skill at composing for small groups. The Violin Sonata No 18 is really a duet between piano and violin. The performers were Lortie himself on the piano, and Toronto Symphony Concertmaster Jonathan Crow on violin. The piece was beautiful and really afforded a great opportunity for both musicians to display their mastery and have some fun. It was a lighthearted piece comprised of two allegro movements. The interplay between the two master musicians was great to watch. They smiled and bounced and flourished together like two old friends. It was a great palette cleanser for the final work of the night, and was delightful in its complex simplicity.
The final work of the program was Piano Concerto No. 22. Lortie was both the pianist and the conductor for this work, which was amazing because he had to conduct with no score. He did the whole thing from memory! This might be common in classical circles, but I still found it so impressive. He was seated in the middle of the ensemble, with no lid on the piano, so that he could make eye contact with the musicians and conduct when he wasn’t playing. The joy that radiated out from him during this piece was palpable. Clearly this music was close to his heart, as was demonstrated by the unrestricted gesticulating of his arms and the animation of his face. His fingers became a blur upon the keyboard. This piece is reflective of Mozart’s reputation as a virtuoso pianist. With its long flurries of notes and its small delicate interludes, it literally runs the gamut of what is possible with the instrument.
Lortie said in his introduction that he selected this piece as it was a good contrast from the woodwind-heavy Serenade No. 10. The work itself also contains some striking contrasts, beginning with a bold allegro movement, which then changes to another slow, sedated andante middle section. This movement was tragic and beautiful, with delicate little swells from the string section the reminded me of sobbing. The effect was exaggerated by the contrast with the lighthearted opening. It’s in these moments that you wonder what kind of darkness Mozart carried in his soul. In the slow movement, Lortie swayed slightly on his bench, lost in the music that surrounded him. The final movement re-imagined the previous musical themes of the Concerto in what is known as a “potpourri”. It was triumphant and majestic. As the final phrase echoed through Roy Thomson Hall and out into the night, the musicians smiled and Lortie smiled back. They had done Mozart proud.