Dallas — Because or the overwhelming number of concerts in the Metroplex, TheaterJones set some basic parameters: we wouldn’t review student performances or ones that were free to the public. We made an exception on Dec. 7 to attend the Meadows Symphony Orchestra at Southern Methodist University, mostly to hear pianist and faculty member Carol Leone play Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto (K. 466).
Weber’s Overture to his opera Der Freischütz opened the program and it ended with a sonic overload—Richard Strauss’ massively orchestrated tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra.
Leone took a subtle approach to Mozart’s concerto, his first in a minor key. When he wrote this in 1785, Mozart was on top of his game. His operatic masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro, was percolating and would be premiered in 1786. The D minor concerto was a favorite of Beethoven’s, who played it himself, and also (reportedly) of Josef Stalin’s. Whoever loved it in the past notwithstanding, it remains one of Mozart’s most popular works and is frequently programmed by everyone from child prodigies to mature artists.
This means that performances can differ widely. Some will go with the dark and stormy nature of the first movement while others take the peaceful and radiant theme from the movement, that he so correctly calls Romanze, as the defining passage. Young plays like to show off in the fast passagework but fine artists look deeper and bring out Mozart’s genus.
Leone averaged the opposing forces. Taking some elements from all approaches, she delivered a subtly shaded performance of great consistency. A little more contrast between the various moods of the movements of the concerto would have made for a more exciting performance, but her elegance more than made up for any muted fireworks.
Actually, we got some flash in the two cadenzi she played, presumably the ones by Beethoven. At the time, the cadenza was usually improvised on the spot, allowing whatever performer was playing to put their individual stamp on the musical materials.
When playing a cadenza by another composer, it is always a little odd to hear another distinctive voice stuck in the middle of Mozart, popping you to another era. Such was the case here. Of course, this is one of the few concerti that Mozart failed to write a cadenza to leave to posterity (or if he did, it is lost). So, it is open game, I suppose. Brahms wrote a lovely pair for this concerto, but it would have been interesting to hear Leone improvise her own.
Moment of Geek: The early forerunners of the modern Steinway-styled concert grand were much less brash than the instruments we know today. Mozart had a pianoforte made by Anton Walter, a distinguished Viennese-based piano maker of Mozart's time. It is smaller than today’s instruments and much more soft-spoken. It also had two less octaves and was very light—less than 200 pounds—which allowed Mozart to carry it with him to his various concerts.
All that aside, Mozart’s fortepiano was a quantum leap of great improvement over the harpsichord, not only its full and rich sound, but in that it could play both softly (piano) and loudly (forte). This meant that piano music could be played with great expressivity, which was impossible on the all-one-dynamic-tinkly harpsichord. Mozart took full advantage of the instruments possibilities.
All this is by way of background. Back to the review.
What was striking about Leone’s subtle approach is how accurately she paid homage to the instrument for which this concerto was written. While she still used the modern piano’s unique abilities, such as the flashy upward “Manheim rocket” arpeggio passages, they were properly and more modestly clad in 1784’s style.
Conductor Paul Philips matched her approach with a surprisingly excellent and responsive SMU orchestra. Fewer string players would have helped because of the live acoustics in the small Caruth Auditorium. The last phrase of that sentence served as a premonition of doom to come.
If the hall was on the small size for Mozart, one trembled at the thought of Strauss’ massive tone poem, written for a huge and greatly augmented orchestra, crammed into such a sonic shoebox. Our worst fears were realized right from the stunning opening passage, made overly famous by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, that pinned back our ears. Phillips gave an intelligent performance, carefully shaped and full of some inspired and truly gorgeous moments.
However, such a large sound, produced by so many instruments, needs room to coalesce and bloom rather than hear the individual blasts from 100 or so different instruments. In Caruth, this was impossible to achieve and misguided to even attempt. A piece like this one is better saved for an appearance in a real concert hall, such as the Meyerson Symphony Center.
The unfriendly acoustics also had the unfortunate side effect of letting us hear the individual players, rather than the overall sonic soup. Few players, even those at the top levels, can withstand such a glaring spotlight.
The SMU orchestra made the best of the situation, however. All of the solo passages were terrific. The use of rotary trumpets helped mellow the brass sound somewhat. Everyone made an admirable effort at balance—a futile but worthy goal. Intonation was mostly excellent.
This is an extremely difficult work to play; challenging for even top-level professional orchestras. The valiant effort the young players made to master and play this music was beyond impressive and bordered on astounding. While there were many individual achievements, the timpanist was especially remarkable—always at the perfect level and never once overplaying the orchestral texture (which is a real temptation in this piece). Few professional timpanists do as fine a job.
Weber’s overture, which opened the program met a similar fate, although it was saved by its more modest scoring.
Some thoughts: The level of university orchestra has always been, and has continued to stay, very high both nationally and internationally. Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony is a magnificent orchestra that is a kind of halfway house between university and professional orchestras. Even high school orchestras, such as the Interlochen Arts Academy and other magnet high schools, play on a nearly professional level.
This is one of the reasons that so many professional American orchestras, even those in smaller cities, play on such a wondrous level. An announced vacancy in any orchestra, large or small, full-time or part-time, can elicit hundreds of able applicants.
Hearing the SMU orchestra, you can understand why.