Mostly Frenchmen


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, forever young

I am so lucky that I made it to Lincoln Center in New York City this week for the big summer music festival, when Mostly Mozart Festival is admittedly mostly over.

This is a festival probing interesting connections and juxtapositions of repertoire.  For example, this weekend, the Schubert Unfinished Symphony will be coupled with Mozart’s ultimate unfinished piece, his Requiem.  On this occasion mid-week, I was fortunate to witness the first New York appearances of a pair of Frenchmen, namely conductor Jeremie Rhorer and pianist Bertrand Chamayou.

I sat almost as far back as it’s possible to sit in the Avery Fisher Hall, a charming little hall whose acoustics still allowed me to hear lots of detail.  But I couldn’t see the instruments.  Why would that matter?  Okay I admit I am a bit compulsive about these things.  I couldn’t see whether the horns had valves or not.

Bertrand Chamayou

Young French pianist Bertrand Chamayou

The strings sounded like modern strings.  Is the Mostly Mozart orchestra– who proclaim themselves to be the only NY orchestra specializing in the classical period–an ensemble playing on period instruments?  Wonderful as the concert was –and accurate–I believe I was hearing modern instruments.  I found the text on their websites ambiguous, with sentences such as the following:
Mostly Mozart includes concerts by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, period-instrument ensembles, chamber orchestras and ensembles, and acclaimed soloists, as well as staged music presentations, opera, dance, film and visual art.”
That suggests that Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra might be a period instrument ensemble.   But although the Mostly Mozart crew play accurately, they’re too good,  reflecting the usual advantage of modern instruments over the instruments of Mozart’s time.  The strings lack the luscious sound of the strings in Tafelmusik Baroque orchestra or Aradia Ensemble, two Toronto ensembles who have spoiled me with their sound.   In fact I have at least a couple of friends who reject anything played on authentic instruments because of their occasional tendency to fluff notes.  Modern instruments are more reliably fluff-proof; but in that trade-off you have something as anachronistic as the big gleaming Steinway used to play the Mozart concerto.

Oh my, I am such a hypocrite.  After all, we cherry pick which aspect of the performance will be historically informed –such as the instruments–while ignoring so many other facets, such as the lighting, theatre architecture, dramaturgy, or singing.  In the end chauvinism is indefensible, given these inconsistencies.  So when we set aside the nit-picking about instrumentation (and when we come to terms with our own quirky preferences), let’s consider the performances.

Opening the concert we heard one of the most unlikely pieces, namely Haydn’s Symphony #22.  Here’s a composition to confound your expectations, particularly in its moody opening movement.  This stirring movement reminds me of two of the more dramatic compositions of the Romantic period, namely the pilgrims march from Berlioz’s Harold en Italie , as well as the powerful chorale 4th movement of Schumann’s 3rd Symphony.  In each case the religious subtexts charge the music with a sense of spiritual drama.  I can’t help but wonder whether Berlioz & Schumann had been influenced by Haydn, writing more than half a century earlier. 

Revelatory as the Haydn had been, for me the most exciting part of the program came next, in the concerto played by Chamayou.  Who is he?

On Youtube Chamayou plays Mendelssohn (a familiar name but hardly well worn repertoire when we go to the songs without words), and genuine terra incognita in music of Thomas Adès and John Cage.  How wonderful is that?  Let me explain.  Pianists are often known for cutting their teeth on warhorses, pieces whose chief value resides in their function as yardsticks of virtuosity.  Play a Rachmaninoff Third Concerto or a Liszt B-minor sonata, well trodden as those pathways are, and one is thereby able to claim credentials as a virtuoso.  Playing these other guys–Cage, Adès or Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Wort–on the other hand is a far riskier proposition for an artist.  Unless you make a stunning impression, such repertoire is a huge risk.  Aha, so this young fellow Chamayou was clearly not afraid of getting lost in the crowd.  Or perhaps he recognized that the only way NOT to get lost in the crowd of virtuosi was to do something extraordinary and brave.

Now of course I would be a liar if I were to say I knew any of that when this young chap stepped out onto the stage to play Mozart’s  Concerto # 12 in A major.  Conductor Jeremie Rhorer looked young enough, but where Rhorer was stylish, Chamayou came out with a distinctively edgy appearance.  During the opening orchestral exposition, Chamayou twitched like an adrenaline addict, desperate to find release.  And when it was his turn to play, he poured the energy into astonishing note-perfect playing, as fluid as if he were pouring liquid Mozart out of his fingers.

“Aha, a virtuoso“, one might be tempted to say: and I think we’d be right in that assessment.  I read something note-worthy (excuse the pun) on that score (uh oh, another pun).  In a recent article Anthony Tommasini of the NY Times suggested that virtuosi are a dime a dozen.  How unfortunate that what was once so rare as to seem magical awhile ago, has become commonplace, and therefore no longer valued.   In each generation there are benchmarks of the unplayable, gradually rehabilitated into concert repertoire by the talent of a piano player such as Chamayou.

Mozart might seem like the most unlikely repertoire for such an adventurer.  But Chamayou brought something very original to the concerto, especially in the cadenzas.  In each case he might have been playing Mozartean jazz, given the coquetry with which he teased his way around the beat during these impromptu solos.  In every case (there’s a candenza in each movement) he sounded fresh and a bit unpredictable, which is quite an achievement in Mozart.

To close the concert Rhorer gave us a brisk clean reading of Mozart’s Symphony #29.  While this was no paradigm shifter, we were still hearing clean idiomatic playing.  This orchestra obviously know their Mozart.

The Festival closes on the weekend.

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