Dallas — No doubt Wolfgang Mozart and Edgar Varèse shared a table Tuesday night in the coffee shop in Heaven, and smiled down at Moody Performance Hall. There, Mozart, who represents the pinnacle of 18th-century rational classicism, and Varèse, one of the most audacious of the 20th century’s enfants terribles, were flung together in a an unfailingly engaging and intellectually stimulating montage by the Dallas Winds under artistic director Jerry Junkin.
Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B-flat for winds provided the foundation for the evening; short one-movement works by Varèse, including his epoch-shattering Ionisation from 1929, were interlarded with the six movements of the Mozart work. (While Varèse is associated with the birth of electronic music, this concert featured only works for acoustic ensembles of winds and percussion.)
For the alert listener, both composers took on a new aura—and it wasn’t just about the extreme and obvious contrast of the two. On one hand, Mozart’s genteel but always assertive lyricism was more clearly etched next to the insistent dissonance of Varèse, and Varèse’s sometimes noisy adventures sounded even more pronounced next to Mozart. At the same time, however, ears freshened by Varèse were more readily attune to the sometimes darker undertones of Mozart, and Mozart’s order and melodicism could inspire the listener to seek out the linear arches in Varèse.
A stable Mozart ensemble took up the left half of the stage, always conducted by Junkin; a more fluid, constantly shifting ensemble on the right half of the stage took on the Varèse works, conducted by a uniformly excellent succession of graduate-level conducting students from the University of Texas at Austin. Each of the Austin-based conductors managed the extraordinary intricacies and unsettling sounds and rhythms of the Varèse works with calm confidence and impressive podium technique, while Junkin skillfully molded Mozart’s respectably traditional strategies to interact with Varèse’s unpredictable journeys of sound.
The opening movement of the Mozart, featuring a serenely majestic Adagio followed by a dance-like Allegro molto, with its almost saucy pauses, placed us clearly in a courtly scene in the eighteenth century; the wildly disjunct opening oboe solo of the first movement of Varèse’s Octandre of 1923 jerked us back up to the early twentieth century, with its lyricism colored by almost violent dissonance, neatly controlled by conductor Matthew Sedatole. The second movement of the Mozart interrupted joyfully, with Junkin emphasizing the dancelike qualities of this Menuetto; in reply, the second and third movements of Octandre, starting with a shrilly insistent, repeated G-flat in the flute, brought an appropriately disquieting mixture of modern angst and longing under the sure hand of conductor Cheldon Williams.
Oboist Steve Pettey flawlessly delivered the divinely yearning oboe melody at the opening of the ensuing Adagio from Mozart (the subject of an unforgettable monologue assigned to Mozart’s rival Salieri in the play and movie Amadeus). This moment, reminiscent of the great slow arias in Mozart’s operas, came to a crashing halt as conductor Jonathan Villela dived ably into the manic mood swings of Varèse’s Hyperprism of 1929.
After intermission, the second Menuetto in the Mozart Serenade opened with its sublimely civilized conversation between smaller and larger subsets within the Mozart ensemble; Dallas Symphony Orchestra principal flute David Buck responded with the acerbic acrobatics of Varèse’s Density 21.5 of 1936for flute alone, skillfully maneuvering through a work that demands just about anything imaginable technically from a flutist. The floating serenity of the Romanza movement of the Mozart Serenade followed, this time answered by the warlike pungency of Varèse’s Intégrales, with its conflict of brass and percussion and insistent martial snare exclamations, energetically and ably led by conductor Pamornpan Komolpamorn.
Here, it was Mozart’s turn to douse Varèse with the calm insistence on order that launches one of Mozart’s most sublime and inventive explorations of variation form in the sixth movement of the Serenade, rich with humor and gently dramatic counterpoint. What better response, then, than Varèse’s Ionisation of 1929—itself a sort of variations for percussion ensemble, here conducted with flawless precision by Tiffany Gallus. The tour de force arrived in Mozart’s Finale in which, after an evening of leaping from Mozart to Varèse and back again, this listener, at least, could not escape hearing the dark undertones in this almost frantic Molto allegro.
The stable Mozart ensemble and the constantly shifting Varèse ensemble both performed with unfailing finesse and power throughout the evening; the performances by Junkin and the group of guest conductors uniformly displayed a technical clarity and efficiency combined with musical sensibility sometimes missing among the star conductors across the street at the Meyerson in concerts of the Dallas Symphony.
The program itself was an exemplary combination of imagination, intelligence, and inventiveness; the audience could come away with a deeper understanding of both Mozart and Varèse and their places in history. The two major professional orchestras in the region could do well to occasionally emulate an effective and profound montage programming strategy of this sort.