Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Mozart and Salieri": An old legend of fatal musical competitiveness gets resuscitated in ISO commissioned work

Composer-pianist Dejan Lazic
One of the puzzling aspects of Dejan Lazic's "Mozart and Salieri" is the scheduling of the work's premiere by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as a one-off.

Friday night's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre offered the public the only chance to hear the guest pianist's symphonic poem. The entire program was thematically tight, giving historical context to the  rivalry between Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri in imperial Vienna of the late 18th century.

Contemporary accounts of Mozart's final days in 1791 differ widely. The murkiness was given a taint of mischief by the mortally ill composer's suspicion that he had been poisoned. No one on his deathbed can be held responsible for fearful thoughts. But the aged Salieri, many years later, sank into senility and expressed guilt at having caused Mozart's death.

On this thin thread Alexander Pushkin hung a brief play that inspired Lazic to cover the possible crime in abstract orchestral terms. The result took up about the last half-hour of a long Classical Series concert. The second puzzle for me is the motivation for focusing on a dubious legend — even though both Lazic and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski made clear in remarks to the audience that the story has no credibility — and thus adding weight to a historical rivalry that might not have been that intense, let alone murderous. Peter Schaffer's play "Amadeus," later made into a popular film by Milos Forman, went far enough in that direction.

The gist of this long-ago artistic vexation was the wonder of genius showing up in a  human vessel unworthy of containing it. In the craggy, scowling face of F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri, that's the crux of "Amadeus."  Lazic has put together the opposition of genius and well-rewarded mediocrity in his piece, but that eternal seesaw was better represented by the concert's first half. That's when Urbanski followed up a scintillating performance of Mozart's teenage miracle Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, with Salieri's Sinfonia in D ("Veneziana").

In the latter pastiche that the senior composer put together mainly from operatic melodies can be heard music suited to Imperial Vienna. It's trimly put together, ingratiating, and given appealing but never startling variety in dynamics and texture. The finale, for instance, is full of effects and not much substance, polite and courtly. The second movement foregrounds the composer's Italian origins, with a secondary melody that would sound quite at home (with a text) coming from a tenore di grazia on the order of Tito Schipa or Cesare Valletti.

The Mozart symphony, especially in the kind of insightful performance Urbanski conducted, has the hallmarks of genius throughout. The ISO played the piece in a manner that highlighted its cunning rhetoric: the question-and-answer phrases, the layered echoes and near echoes, the way phrases "talk" to each other. The burgeoning opera composer is reflected in this abstract work. I'll bring up just one detail that only a composer far above Salieri's capability could manage: The first movement, after its syncopated energy, its flashing contrasts and the excitement so well elaborated in the development, comes to a perfect ending. Mozart takes the foot off the accelerator without compromising any of the power he has unleashed; and yet the final couple of measures don't seem abrupt. There's no feeling of "how do I stop this thing anyway?," but rather a compact wrapping up that might well have had the establishment darling Salieri ruefully shaking his head.

To start the second half, the more adroit side of Lazic was presented as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Lazic's performance came up to the very edge of affectation, but I found it a model of individuality and gracefulness. The singing tone was pronounced in the sublimity of the Andante movement. The unity of expression between piano and orchestra attained extraordinary heights in the finale. Lazic played his own cadenzas and "holds"; the cadenzas, especially the one in the first movement, gave a foreshadowing of problems I found with "Mozart and Salieri."

Put positively, Lazic certainly made full use of all the first-movement material, even overlaying one of the themes on another. The cadenza was cluttered but powerful, as was "Mozart and Salieri," but less impressively. His third-movement cadenza was less of a show-off matter, though it was too heavy at first; fortunately, it lightened up most of the way and truly reflected the nature of the finale.

"Mozart and Salieri," according to the composer's written and oral program notes, is designed to reflect the contrast between genius and mediocrity. But any contemporary composer might well have a problem adequately representing Mozart's genius, and Lazic fell somewhat short. It's true there was some evident contrast, especially with the opening Salieri music — baleful and ominous. To suggest mediocrity is no problem, if craftsmanship and a feeling for serious mockery are there. Lazic's music had those qualities, but the presentation was excessively barbed.

The quotes of some famous Mozart motifs and tune excerpts were hard to pick out, especially in passages devoted to Pushkin's Blind Violinist. Concertmaster Zach DePue expended considerable effort in his Scene 1 solos, which reflected the piece's mood of conflict. But I missed evocations of the familiar Mozart arias "Voi che sapete" and "La ci darem." The hidden nature of those quotes was another puzzle, given that in this scene Pushkin's Salieri is supposed to wonder why Mozart isn't offended by a street musician's rendition of his beautiful melodies.

Lazic draws a lot of variety from the orchestra. He's fond of extreme registers: piccolo and contrabassoon make conspicuous appearances. Piano, Mozart's major instrument in his maturity, wove major strands through the ensemble fabric, as played by Lazic. The orchestration is aggressive and impacted. I found the respite of the "Interlude" before Scene 2 most welcome.There was a flair for the dramatic evident in that scene depicting Mozart's death throes and Salieri's sorrow, expressed through a long buildup of overwhelming force, "thus creating the feeling of ultimate chaos," in Lazic's words.

Another big crescendo toward crowded full-orchestra terrain takes place in the Epilogue, which I think is intended to represent "that death is not eternal oblivion and that it is nothing to fear." This triumphant mood was hard to distinguish, except through a noisy maestoso grandeur. But to my ears and on first exposure, this symphonic resuscitation of a discredited story about artistic competitiveness taken to a criminal level was not worth the attempt.