Monday, January 09, 2006

Extremity of Contrasts

Another Xanga post:

Maestro Stern and the Kansas City Symphony continued their impressive season last night with the first concert in the year long celebration of 250th birthday of Mozart. Two of Mozart's masterpieces, the Symphony # 40 and the Eb Major 2 Piano concerto were featured along with a new concerto by Melinda Wagner "Extremity of Sky".

Stern was joined by the renowned Emanuel Ax (and his wife Yoko Nozaki for the 2 piano concerto) one of the most consistently brilliant and successful pianists of the last 30 years. Ax is at home in Mozart and the classics as well as the more specialized French repertoire and is a champion of many new works, including the Melinda Wagner.

The Eb was a perfect opener, and enthusiastically received. Mozart wrote a true 2 piano concerto, with both pianists having parts of equal bravura. Stern showed his prowess at more intimate chamber music styles with the smaller classic sized orchestra of strings, oboes, bassoon and horns only. The interplay between the two solos was breathtaking and technically clean.Yet the fantasy and even moments of drama were fully realized.

The "Extremity of Sky" Concerto by Melinda Wagner (who shares my exact birth date of February 25, 1957) was an extremity of contrast to the Mozart. Written for Ax and the Chicago Symphony in 2002, it is one of a growing body of contemporary works written under the shadow of 9/11. Wagner watched the smoke from Manhattan from her home in New Jersey and dedicated the work to a fallen firefighter and friends killed in the attack. The title (a phrase from "King Lear") is meant to reflect the troubling time of the concerto's creation in 2001-2002.

The long work uses every 20th and 21st century sound one can imagine, frequently to great effect but sometimes to extreme. Echoes of her teacher George Crumb could be heard in the 3 sharp chords heard throughout the piece (straight from "Echoes of Time and the River) and the celesta, used to recreate the sound of "a child's slightly out of tune music box", is reminiscent of Crumb's use of a toy piano in many of his works. To my ears, Wagner failed in her stated mission to create a piano concerto that showcased the piano while incorporating it into the orchestral fabric. The piano was frequently buried too deep in the dense textures. And please Ms Wagner, easy on the Bartok pizzicati... 2-3 are fine. Ax played it as well as could be expected. I noted at the rather abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying end that Stern and Ax looked at each other as if to say "ok we got through it". So I am not convinced it is a successful piece, although I found the slow movement "Prayer-Chain" atmospheric and moving. Overall a worthwhile piece to hear but one that may take some repeated hearing to digest.

The Great G-minor Symphony # 40 of Mozart is one of the crown jewels of music. Ever fresh and relevant, this stormy piece looks forward to Beethoven and beyond, standing in contrast to the more elegant and refined Concerto that began the program. Right from the very familiar opening (Stern even quips that it is a cell phone ring tone. I know, I have used it!) the tragic restlessness and energy is established. To me the quaintly named minuet is a foreshadow of the more turbulent scherzos of Bruckner and dare I say the inspiration of the most rousing of all scherzi, the Shostakovich 10th? The genius as he was, Mozart let the tension up a notch in the more relaxed trio of the minuet. A flowing yet intense reading of the Andante and an energetic yet still tragic tinged finale closed this masterpiece. I have heard this piece is played as if it were just another tuneful, classical era Symphony. Stern correctly brought out the drama and the tragedy inherent in the piece. The orchestra and Stern deserved the enthusiastic applause.

We'll hear more Mozart this season. We can hope as wonderfully played as this concert.

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