While tonight’s Toronto Symphony all-Mozart concert, conducted by violinist Pinchas Zukerman was 180 degrees in the opposite direction from what they were up to yesterday at Koerner Hall, launching the 21C Festival of new music, there were some interesting points of contact.
I had mused about the notion of the virtuoso & the functions of virtuosity last night, contemplating the brilliant work of Stewart Goodyear as composer & piano soloist. Sometimes a new piece tests what’s possible on an instrument, what a player can do. That can be a very serious endeavor.
I was thinking last night that maybe at times it’s too serious. The difference between high art and something commercial? If you come up with something brilliant that might become an ear worm, and you repeat it insistently? That’s what a popular composer does, what a Richard Strauss, a Giacomo Puccini, a Camille Saint-Saens, a Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky or a Sergei Rachmaninoff might do. Perhaps more serious composers think of that as “selling out”..?
But the ear wants what it wants.
I couldn’t help noticing the joy in Zukerman’s playing tonight, music from 1775, and it was infectious.
Who could blame him? I’m thinking particularly of the second half of the program, when he seemed to push himself to a higher level, inspired by what he was playing. There was no mistaking the enjoyment in his reading of the Violin Concerto #3, one where all three movements have memorable melodies, remarkable drama between the soloist & orchestra.
I didn’t want that third movement to end, it was so magnificently played. Zukerman was playing with us in more ways than one. In the back and forth dialogue between his solo lines and the accompanying ensemble he played up the comedy. For instance he might play the line straight (as written) the first time, then add a portamento (slide) the second time, and a touch of real schmaltz the next time, thoroughly enjoying the chemistry with the orchestra and an audience who were eating it up, not knowing what exactly to expect but enjoying the game.
Virtuosity is not just chops, the skill in one’s fingers & hands & arms. Zukerman took the stage with all the charisma of a vaudevillian playing his favourite routine for his fans. The swagger was contagious. Now please understand, this is a different kind of music and a different century from last night’s music. What was intriguing to notice was that Zukerman –a mature artist, in total contrast to the athletic young pianist from last night—really knows himself so well, so relaxed up there it was quite astonishing. During the first of two concertos he played (#5 was first, #3 second), he actually came out onto the stage with his violin, walking through the applause into the space amidst the strings to begin the first movement orchestral introduction, making the downbeat while still walking, the applause not quite dead in the hall. Was he seeking to surprise or startle the orchestra? I think so. That concerto before the interval was not as inspired as the one after intermission.
Did Mozart write with any other players in mind, or just himself? I can’t help wondering. But oh my that concerto –#3 I mean—is so enjoyable for everyone. If you were ever to ask “why compose music” there can be at least a couple of answers:
- You’re trying to make money as a composer ( not a good answer in my opinion)
- It’s what you do for a living (again, not a good answer)
- You love the sounds you’re creating and want to hear them (that’s more like it)
- It’s fun and you want to hear people play what you write (surely that’s the dream…)
- You want to give singers & musicians & dancers something to sing / play / dance
When a child hears music like this concerto, one can imagine them deciding they want to learn the violin, to play this someday. I know that there are pieces that when you hear them, you want to play them because they are beautiful, you want to hear them again because you can’t get the melody out of your head. That’s what I came for tonight and (wow) that’s exactly what I got. Lucky me.
They warmed up to it, as parts of the first half of the concert were not quite as superb, perhaps a little too mellow for my taste. Maybe I am spoiled by the historically informed super fast approach of Tafelmusik and ensembles like them. That these were a little slower, more in the tradition of the Mozart I grew up with as a child, such as Karl Bohm’s Mozart (I had his Magic Flute and his symphonies #40 & 41) doesn’t mean they couldn’t be great fun. But they were romantic readings, the sound big and muscular, a pompous sort of fun. This Mozart makes you love the symphony.
Zukerman and the TSO are back Friday & Saturday with the same program at Roy Thomson Hall.