Mozart and “Mozart” Face-Off

02/12/2010 1:45 PM |

I can do this all season if I have to
  • “I can do this all season if I have to”

Blue-haired subscription audiences are notoriously skeptical of the new. So if the New York Philharmonic is going to world-premiere Baltimore-native Christopher Rouse’s Odna Zhizn, a moody, clangorous, mercurial, unpredictable, bold, brash, anxious and angsty 20-minute work, the orchestra will of course bookend it with popular repertoire favorites: a little Mozart anyone?

But musical director Alan Gilbert, also the evening’s conductor, seemed to be programming with a bit of cheeky subversion. The evening began with Mozart’s, or “Mozart”’s, Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and Orchestra. The piece represents Mozart at his worst. Chipper, childish string melodies emerge, then fall back to complement the soloists, whose quasi-virtuosic parts playfully but precisely scurry over one another. But there’s no emotion in it at all: the temper, measured; the interlocking parts, carefully and conservatively controlled. It’s delicate. And gratingly polite.

That might be because scholars now believe Mozart didn’t even write the damn thing! This Mozart pastiche comes close to Mozart spoof. And, by opening with such a dull piece, Gilbert seemed to be asking, “you don’t want new music? What do you want? This?” Ew, no! I’ll never speak ill of contemporary classical again!

Coming on the heels of such a dreadful work, the Rouse was particularly, er, rousing. Odna Zhizn, commissioned by the Phil, practically fades in, a lullaby that soon curdles into nightmare: an eerie, slow-groaning string line welcomes a few plucks from the harp, the occasional rattle of a marimba; woodwinds titter like worried birds, trumpets groan with a Doppler-like effect. It’s all punctuated by loud and sudden orchestral boo!s, like musical flatulence as suggested by the foghorn brass, and rhythmic explosions of dissonance. It had a strong soundtrack quality—“sounds like Lost,” my seatmate whispered, and it did! Rouse was on-hand to bow happily before intermission.

After the break, Gilbert—in the interests of fairness—redeemed Mozart’s reputation for anyone in the audience who’d begun to doubt it. He led the orchestra in an example of Mozart at his best: Symphony No. 41 in C major, also known as “Jupiter” (1788). (Listen to the first movement here.) An early biographer called it “truly the first of all symphonies,” and its triumphant glories do seem a precursor to Beethoven’s dancier, jollier moments. The music displays an emotional maturity often missing from Mozart’s work: as always, the music is energetic, but it also sounds more urgent, more sincere, more tempestuous, more complexly orchestrated and structured. Or was that just the orchestra? Under Gilbert’s baton, it gave the Mozart a rich Romantic flair, which had been missing the last time I’d heard them play the piece: in Prospect Park last summer. That performance of the piece was so underwhelming I nearly forgot I’d even seen it. Either Gilbert’s growing as a conductor or the orchestra sounds that much better indoors.

The New York Philharmonic repeats the program tonight at 8 p.m. and again next Tuesday, the 16th, at 7:30 p.m. More details here.