Saturday, June 2, 2018

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra launches two-week celebration of Mozart's final year

On credible authority, it's known that Wolfgang Mozart never used the middle name "Amadeus," except in a few jocular epistolary signatures. Yet, as play and movie, "Amadeus" is an indelible part of the sainted Austrian composer's identity.

W.A. Mozart death mask
"Amadeus" also plays with the age-old drama about the last act of Mozart's truncated span of life on the planet. How he died at 36, and how much he anticipated his demise in his Requiem's  composition (mysteriously commissioned, completed by a pupil), the nature of his fatal illness, his financial situation — all have been the focus of speculation and competing narratives since December 1791. Even his burial in what was once tut-tutted as a pauper's grave has been overinterpreted as a slight, when it followed in fact an imperial directive to simplify Viennese burial practices.

Certainly, the abrupt ending of a career of genius right after the creation of pieces like the Requiem, "The Magic Flute," "The Clemency of Titus," and the B-flat major piano concerto (No. 27, K.595) seems deplorable. Life's indifferent cruelty gives us so many opportunities to appreciate great art all the more. Few music-lovers would agree with Glenn Gould's notorious observation that Mozart "died too late, rather than too soon."

Krzysztof Urbanski has chosen to close out the 2017-18 season of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with a two-week Mozart festival. This weekend, audiences at the Hilbert Circle Theatre and Carmel's Palladium are hearing concerts featuring Emanuel Ax as soloist in K. 595 and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir (and four guest soloists) in the Requiem.

Friday night's performances were brightly begun by the brisk "Titus" Overture, inflected so as to  emphasize the dramatic effect of crescendos and quasi-echo passages. The opera has come into its own after years of neglect, mainly because the opera seria genre in which it was belatedly written did not appeal to opera impresarios and audiences from the 19th century on almost to the present. Last year, I saw a quite moving account of the work staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

To complete the first half, one of the most popular ISO guest soloists of recent years was pianist in
Emanuel Ax showed himself to be a Mozartean of exquisite taste.
the concerto. There's not an inarticulate bone in the body of Ax's playing, yet he consistently produced a slightly veiled sonority that suited a work that thrills without spectacle, one that is even more insistent on partnership than usual. The accompaniment was nicely understated at just enough points to reflect that serene collaborative spirit. Unlike so many conversations today in and out of music, this one was unfailingly civil.

The pianist's singing tone dominated the main material of the finale, with robust variety brought to the episodes, which kicked up a little dust. Ax's playing of that movement's cadenza seemed to encompass everything Mozart stood for technically and expressively after he attained full mastery. Called back by the enthusiastic audience, Ax offered an encore by the Polish-born Chopin in unspoken tribute to his birthplace (and that of the maestro).

With the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir prepared up to its usual high standard by its director, Eric Stark, the choral traversal of the Latin Mass for the Dead text put all its points across colorfully. The words were clearly projected, using the Austro-German pronunciation of Latin, the way the composer would have heard them.

In most respects, I was impressed by the dialing up and back of the dynamics. It put to the forefront the humanity behind the liturgical message. At length, it seemed rather overdone. God is addressed in stentorian tones as "king of tremendous majesty," and a few phrases later is quietly implored for salvation as the "fount of mercy." This makes sense, of course, as does the later plea for the dead to be delivered (soft, humble) from "the mouth of the lion" (loud, even roaring). By the time we got to the "Hostias," however, the push-pull of volume began to feel like an affectation. "Dona eis requiem" (grant them rest) was whisper-soft the first time it occurred in "Agnus Dei," as it was when repeated at the end of that section, but with a tremendous crescendo applied to the added last word, "sempiternam," to make clear that eternal, not temporary, rest is what's being requested.

Admittedly, such an interpretation steered a path far away from anything routine or blandly reverent. The dark-toned orchestra, with its trombone and bassoon coloring, seemed fit for all the shifting demands.  The solo quartet — soprano Lauren Snouffer, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, tenor John Tessier, bass Peixin Chen — sounded as a compatible unit when their vocal lines moved together. When the lines were more independent, Tessier's light voice was somewhat buried in the texture.

The best soloing came near the end, in the portion of the work that bears much less of Mozart's stamp (Marianne Williams Tobias' program note is an excellent guide). In the "Benedictus," Chen exhibited particular urgency and warmth in the simple announcement "Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord." You almost didn't mind the curiously brief "Hosanna in the highest" that follows: for once, it was enough.

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