Arts concert review

‘You can’t write 3 distinct symphonies in C’ Mozart: ‘Hold my beer’

Mozart shows the beauty in varied repetition

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Herbert Blomstedt conducts an all-Mozart program at Symphony Hall.
Courtesy of Robert Torres

Week 17: All Mozart Program: Symphonies No. 34 in C, No. 36 in C “Linz,” No. 41 in C “Jupiter”
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Feb. 22, 2018

Let me start off by saying that I’m not the biggest fan of Mozart (an odd choice, then, to go to an all Mozart program, I know). Usually, I go in for the later, more programmatic works of the Romantic era. In that era, when a theme is presented, it’ll come up infrequently, and have lots of meaning and emotion attached to it.

Mozart takes a different paradigm all together. Instead of presenting themes as units of meaning, themes come and go quickly, providing a snapshot of emotion in the higher structure of the work, each moment revealing more of this pure idea, wrapped and coloured in the easy (but technical), consonant sound of the orchestra. This is what I learned to appreciate at this week’s concert.

The first thing that I noticed was the difference in layout of the orchestra. As opposed to the usual, more Romantic setup, with full wind and percussion sections, Mozart preferred a string-heavy layout, with only two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and, in No. 41, a flute. The minimal cast did not too strongly detriment the range of timbre that Mozart could achieve, however — indeed, he manages to squeeze everything from seat-rumbling bass melodies to running strings frantically flying across scales, seemingly effortlessly.

Also unlike the usual performance, which eases you into the first piece with a crescendo, or similarly growing effect, No. 34 wastes no time, jumping straight into a loud, triumphant theme presented by the full orchestra in unison, beginning a rapid set of theme presentations, developments, and modulations about that most comfortable and consonant key of C. Over the next 20 minutes, the C scale is put through so many consonant, yet beautifully distinct contortions, never unbalanced, varying from slow and quiet, to triumphant, technical, and loud, flowing to discrete, playing with the left-right asymmetry of the orchestral timbre — something that I have yet to hear replicated in recordings, and would even attribute to the skill of the conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

The next piece, in true college student fashion (even though he was 27 at the time), No. 36 “Linz,” was written in the four days leading up to its performance, not that one would be able to tell. Featuring syncopation, a more expansive use of the winds, dynamics, and mood, even going so far as to include a few lightly dissonant chords, The piece brings yet another light to the key of C that No. 34 didn’t even dream of. Keeping his signature cadences and structure, Mozart still managed to create a distinct piece requiring its own technical and orchestral mastery. Amazingly, even though the piece was technically complex, it never felt “heavy” or oppressive, even if it was busy, it was still easy to listen to.

It’s hard not to hear Mozart grow with each of these pieces, gaining more control over mood and expression, which is magnified and coloured by the individuals in the orchestra. This reached its logical conclusion with Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter.” This piece, true to its posthumous nickname, conveys a powerful majesty emanating a confident, yet alluring feel, notably utilizing a flute to present and emphasize themes (I’m a sucker for a good flute piece, and this one very much qualifies). Even though the mid and high strings were still very much the timbric centre, the low strings had some excellent pizzicato countermelodies below the highly technical runs which swam across the stage, even building some chords which, if the melody were not quite so repetitive or structured, might have been found in a Romantic era piece, reverberating deeply below the more traditionally Mozartian melody. The full chords and technical runs complimented each other, truly marking height, and, unfortunately, last huzzah of this composer’s timeless talent.