One of the most vexing aspects of our incredibly talented and justifiably world-renowned Maestro, Jaap van Zweden, is his lack of trust in his orchestra to play the music without his assistance on every note and nuance. His musical ideas are sure and his interpretations sound. He understands how to make Mozart sound fresh and new while still observing the performance practices of the day, such as the use of rotary trumpets. He knows that Mozart only added in the most perfunctory expression marks to his scores, mostly because the composer knew he would be present to explain at all of his performances, and that modern day conductors must read Mozart's mind. This, van Zweden does with impeccable taste and understated elegance.
It is certain that his rehearsal must be demanding. But, when we get to the performance, he continues to clamp down hard and doesn't let his Dallas Symphony, arguably one of the best orchestras in the world, play the music the way he taught it to them. At performance, when his gestures should be loose enough to let the players play, he conducts even the most miniscule turn of the phrase. He subdivides all over the place, from a tense crouch, while flashing a scowl. This is even when Mozart is at his silliest, such as the overture to his comic opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with its exuberant triangle part, that opened the DSO's Mozart Festival at the Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday. This was the first of two concert series in the mini-festival that runs through next weekend.
The result on Thursday was a precisely and perfectly played concert of music, all by Mozart, without any of the composer's famous wit and charm. Thus, the concert seemed overly long, repetitive and exhausting, yet everything was so wonderful at any given moment that it seems churlish to complain. As the King of Siam said, "'tis a puzzlement."
The young violinist Augustin Hadelich gave an elegant rendition of Mozart's Concerto No. 5 in A Major K219. While his sound never filled the hall, he was always audible above the orchestra, mostly thanks to van Zweden's sensitive collaboration. Hadelich has impressed, with some reservations, in the past. Here, in the Mozart, he was as elegant as van Zweden, eschewing any semblance of the diva right from the start by playing along with the introductory orchestral tutti. While he didn't pull his vibrato back as far as van Zweden pulled that of the strings in the orchestra, the two interpretations seemed to be pretty much in sync. Of course, van Zweden is one of the world's great violinists himself, so this concerto in embedded into his DNA.
It was a misstep on Thursday for Hadelich to risk playing Paganini's Ninth Caprice as an encore. Not only did it jarringly interrupt the all Mozart evening, but his faulty intonation on the thirds and run away bow arm elsewhere gave away his youth and inexperience. If you are going to play these caprices, the equivalent of figure skating's quadruple lutz, you better be perfect. The enthusiasm the orchestra showed for the soloist after the concerto was markedly subdued after the encore.
In a brilliant programming coup, van Zweden played Mozart's first and last symphonies. Of course, Mozart had no way of knowing that this symphony, at age 32, would be his last. Yet, hearing it, the masterful Mozart could hardly complain about the masterwork he left as a farewell for all of posterity. Even so, if he had lived, he would have known Beethoven and even Berlioz. The mind boggles at what he would have produced. (Alas, the world has not learned this lesson and continues to mistreat most of its composers.)
Truth be told, if the first symphony had been discovered in some dusty archive without the name of a composer on it, it would probably have been discarded. Of course, Mozart was only 8 years old at the time, so it is a remarkable achievement for a child and there are flashes of the genius to come to be found here and there.
It is also of interest to hear Mozart's use of the bare tonic triad as his initial melodic materials in both symphonies (more sophisticated in No. 41, of course). This is a practice that goes back to Bach (his E major violin concerto) and up to Beethoven (the descending triads that open his 9th symphony) and beyond, right up to our own day.
What also links Mozart's first symphony with his last is that he quotes the four-note motif, Do, Re, Fa, Me, from the second movement of his first endeavor in the finale of his last, Symphony No. 41, The Jupiter. This motive reoccurs throughout musical history, reaching as far back as Josquin des Prez's Missa Pange lingua from the 16th century. Did Mozart know this? Who knows? Maybe. But the way it encompasses the tonic and dominant in such a few notes makes it ripe for compositional treatment and Mozart does it proud in his final symphony, of the greatest symphonies ever written.
The composer's penchant for opera sticks out all over this work. The final fugue, where five different themes battle it out for pre-eminence, will always remain an astonishing compositional achievement. But, compositional virtuosity aside, it is wonderful music and exciting to hear.