Mozart from the NZSO – magical music and music-making

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
Magnificent Mozart

Overture: The Abduction from the Seralio K.384
Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola in E-flat K.364
Symphony No.40 in G Minor K.550

Andrew Grams (conductor)
with Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) and Julia Joyce (viola)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 9 August 2013

This early evening concert was conducted by Andrew Grams, billed as “one of America’s most promising and talented young conductors [who] has already appeared with many of the great orchestras of the world”.  The band of 40 players was nicely sized for the works, and Grams amply demonstrated his talents as he drew from them a sparkling sound, wide dynamic range, and the clean crisp playing so vital to Mozart’s writing.

The opening work was the opera overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio K.384 – seven minutes of glittering brilliance that made full play of the “Turkish” effects in its orchestration, and the wide dynamic contrasts that swept dramatically from whispering piano to full throated fortissimo and back in a matter of moments, with effortless precision. The excitement of this music and the playing immediately captured the audience.

Next was the much loved Sinfonia Concertante in Eb major K.364 for violin and viola, with soloists by Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Principal Viola Julia Joyce. The opening Allegro maestoso showed immediately that both principals and conductor were of one mind about their interpretation, and this was underpinned throughout by impeccable support from the orchestra. The lilting rhythms and melodies of this beautiful movement were woven effortlessly between the participants, and the romance of the phrasing was fully exploited with rubato where appropriate. The double cadenza was executed with great panache.

The central Andante was presented as a beautifully contemplative conversation between the solo instruments, and it was executed with exquisite delicacy. The poetry of these exchanges was further enhanced by the contrast of Julia Joyce’s beautiful misty blue satin gown with Leppänen’s sombre black suit. The audience was spellbound, and you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.

While my personal preference is for a reading that maximizes the silken warmth of the violin and has the throaty syrup of the lower viola sound filling the space with Mozart’s luscious melodies, that is very much an individual choice. Having settled on their particular approach, these players held the audience in breathless appreciation.

The sparkling final Presto got off to a galloping start which had me wondering if it could be adequately sustained. The tempo was certainly presto, but the orchestra and soloists literally never missed a beat. What did suffer was Mozart’s wonderful passagework for strings and winds, which was sacrificed to the god of speed to no real advantage. The riveting sweep of the scales missed out on that spine-tingling quality that is imbued by the clarity of every note speaking within the rushing texture. There is magic in every single note of Mozart’s orchestral writing, and it does not deserve to be lost.

When I chatted briefly at the interval to a musician whom I greatly respect, she expressed the view that it was courageous to try and present this Concertante work in such a large space. This perfectly voiced my sentiments. The impeccable musicianship and technical execution of the performance were never in question, but there were times when the soloists, and the  lower register of the viola in particular, were overshadowed by orchestra, despite its modest resources. The work was not composed for the mega halls of modern times, and it lost some of its complexity and emotional richness in the transposition.

That said, the audience was hugely appreciative and called the players back repeatedly to the stage. This surely is grounds enough for offering the public this extraordinary work more frequently.

Mozart’s Symphony no.40 in G minor ‘The Great’, K.550 formed the second half of the concert. The orchestra and conductor were again in perfect understanding, and Andrew Grams’ light touch with the baton confirmed his absolute confidence that the players were responding to every nuance in the music. The Molto Allegro opened with a whisper of string sound before the restless melody which is the famous hallmark of this movement. Its sense of insistence at each reappearance  provided a clearly articulated framework for the excellent string and wind playing.

The following Andante was rendered with due presence and a measure of solemnity, while never becoming heavy; rather it was like a respectful homage to one of the last works that was to come from Mozart’s prolific and remarkable pen.

The contrasts of the following Menuetto:Allegro sections were beautifully balanced, with exquisitely clean woodwind playing in the Trio. The conductor and orchestra then captured wonderfully the boisterous exuberance of the closing Allegro assai, and it formed a great finale to an evening of magical music and music making.

The packed house and hugely appreciative audience must surely demonstrate that the listening public is hungry for more of this repertoire. Wellington is fortunate to have two outstanding orchestras that can do justice to this, yet concerts of this type are regrettably few and far between. Bring on more!

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