In a belated contribution to Mozart's 250th birthday celebrations, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opened its Masterworks series at the Capitol Theater last Friday with a program totally devoted to the Salzburg master's music. All-Mozart = heaven, by any calculation.
And heavenly it was. Mozart composed his brilliant D-major "Symphony No. 31" in Paris to challenge simplistic audience tastes there. The result was a work both flashy and dazzling in its display of orchestral brilliance, beyond the capacity of any other composer of his day. I felt that conductor Andrew Sewell sacrificed a bit of the first movement's panache for the sake of a more relaxed refinement. But the work as a whole was delivered with crisp effectiveness under lucid direction.
If No. 31 is a Mozart symphony too rarely heard in concert, how often might we hear two Mozart piano concertos in the same program? Especially ones of such appealing contrasts? Mozart wrote No. 17 in G (K. 453) for a female pupil to play, and No. 22 in E-flat (K. 482) for himself. It is tempting to think of the former work, therefore, as somewhat "feminine" in spirit, the latter more "masculine."
That's a tricky distinction, though. Both concertos are gloriously tuneful. Moreover, between the gracious, bubbly outer movements of No. 17 comes a dark and brooding middle movement of surprising strength. As for No. 22, it is a treasure-box of variety. Not heard as often as Mozart's other piano concertos of its vintage, it is my favorite among them for its dazzling inspiration and ambitious scope. Particularly winning is Mozart's display of his unmatched mastery in writing for woodwinds. Their passages of melting beauty in one segment of the theme-with-variations middle movement, and in the middle section of the expansive rondo finale, recall his wind serenades or wind scorings in his late operas. The WCO's fine wind players were notably splendid in such places.
Fulfilling twice the concerto duties normal for a guest soloist was Garrick Ohlsson, one of America's most talented and respected pianists. A strapping but genial giant of a man, he has an unpretentious, straightforward manner that contrasts with his total technical facility, and his easy balance of unaffected elegance against assertive strength, as required. He was a true partner with the orchestra players and then, unfazed by his double assignment, added the final movement of a Mozart piano sonata as an encore.