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Curiosities, and a Touch of Spring in December

New York
92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall
12/07/2019 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Overture from Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492 (arr. Johann Wendt) — Serenade No. 10 for Winds in B-flat Major, “Gran Partita”, K. 370a [361]
Kurt Weill: Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op. 12

Carolin Widmann (violin)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

C. Widmann (© Lennard Rühle)

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Saturday concert began with something of a curiosity: the overture to Le nozze de Figaro arranged for wind band. The arrangement, it so happens, dates to the 1780s; the program note informs us that such arrangements were numerous and popular at the time. Mozart’s original of course offers plenty of wind writing to work with, but sans strings the music becomes a touch more jovial, less biting and cheeky—except for those strongly accented notes right after the first big half-cadence, which really sting here. An intriguing alternate view on a chestnut, then—and no complaints about the score’s realization by musicians from what is perhaps the world’s most distinguished conductorless orchestra.

Kurt Weill’s 1924 Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra is a curiosity in its own right. I wonder if this is the only work of its kind. It almost surely is, at least considering the addition of four double basses to the winds and percussion! The real question is what value lies here beyond novelty. To my ear, it’s no masterpiece, but there are things to enjoy. These are generally not in the first movement, a meandering exposition of modernism-a-la-Hindemith mostly bereft of the striking themes the latter knew how to serve up. The four subsequent movements generally exhibited more structural clarity; they also spend more time mining the jazz vein one expects with the composer of what became “Mack the Knife.” Weill is at his best in these moments, as well as in his exploration of the colors and textures available to him in his unusual instrumental configuration—the range is surprisingly wide. Carolin Widmann delivered the oft-uningratiating solo violin part with aplomb, but I tended to focus less on the solo part per se than on how it interweaves with the accompaniment. A somewhat intriguing novelty, in sum, that plods and gets one’s toes tapping by turns.

In its fitfulness of substantial ideas, the Weill made quite a foil for the evening’s feature presentation, the most famous of Mozart’s wind serenades. The Gran Partita is a puzzling work to me. Among the great composers, Mozart is without peer as a melodist; while Verdi produced his share of earworms, they seldom even hint at the deep poignancy and evocative emotional ambivalence with which Mozart infused countless themes. Here the Austrian master takes a basically un-dramatic genre and creates in it a work of epic length by 18th-century standards—at nearly 50 minutes, longer than any of his symphonies—that consists, really, of a grand procession of expressively contrasted melodies. The Serenade in C minor, K. 388, is only about half as long, yet achieves a more symphonic effect in its structural severity and rigor. By contrast, the Gran Partita can come off as Wagnerian in its endless melody—albeit classically well-formed melody. I have to be in a certain mood to really get into the spirit of the thing throughout all seven movements. That being said, however, I can never deny the sheer mastery and ingenuity of all Mozart’s material here.

As lovely as the two slow movements are, my favorite things here are probably the second minuet and the vigorous concluding Rondo, filled with the kind of “Turkish” music familiar from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and, more ubiquitously, his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major. Yet I find the movement’s opening more striking and memorable still. The finale was realized with exceptional urgency by the Orpheus players; this was a slight surprise given their approach to most of the rest of the work, which was light on its feet, at times almost airy, yet never flippant. Mozart in his own way achieves as much expressive depth as most of the Romantics, but this is one work that it is probably best to avoid inflating with excess weight. Saturday’s performance was quite well-balanced in this regard; at its best, it was so fresh and buoyant that one nearly forgot how cold the December evening was outside.

Samuel Wigutow



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