Autumnal good cheer with Emanuel Ax and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall
In a new biography, John Suchet calls Mozart "surely the happiest composer who ever lived." We got a great demonstration of that this past weekend as the St. Louis Symphony opened its new season with the first in a series of three all-Mozart programs.
That happiness was most apparent in the first half of the concert, which opened with a spirited and elegant dash through the overture to the 1789 comic masterpiece Le nozze di Figaro. Although it includes no music from the opera itself, the overture nevertheless perfectly captures the freewheeling spirit of the work, and maestro David Robertson honored that spirit of fun.
Up next was the Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, written two years earlier when Mozart was trying to make a living as a composer/pianist in Vienna. One of six that the composer produced that year in a never-ending struggle to engage the attention of the notoriously fickle Viennese public, it's engaging, tuneful, and just sophisticated enough to display Mozart's fine hand at counterpoint.
Soloist Emanuel Ax delivered a performance of crystalline perfection that allowed all of the joy and ingenuity of this piece to come through. Mr. Robertson and the orchestra supported him beautifully with playing that was light, precise, and classically pristine. Contemporary orchestras are bigger and contemporary pianos far more powerful than was the case in Mozart's day, but Mr. Ax and the orchestra still managed to convey that incredible lightness of being that you don't always experience in "big band" Mozart.
The second half of the concert was devoted to works that represented Mozart's last thoughts on the subject of the piano concerto and the symphony: the Concerto No. 27 (premiered the year of Mozart's death, although likely written a few years earlier) and the monumental Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter," a title Mozart never used for it) from 1788. The contrast between the two is striking.
Back when everyone thought the Concerto No. 27 was produced in the final year of Mozart's life, it was not uncommon to read a kind of end-of-life resignation into this music. It's certainly lyrical and sometimes pensively sad, but it still sounds like the work of the happiest composer who ever lived. It got, in any case, a warm and engaging interpretation from Mr. Ax and Mr. Robertson that brought out peaceful autumnal reflection of this remarkable work.
The Symphony No. 41, on the other hand, bristles with the confidence and self-assertion of a man who had completely mastered symphonic form and was ready, in the words of The Guardian's Tom Service, to see "just how many different expressive and compositional contrasts he can cram into a single symphony." There's a little bit of everything in this music, and Mr. Robertson and his forces brought out all of its kaleidoscopic variety.
I was particularly struck by the simple charm of the Andante cantabile second movement and the "gotta dance" energy of the third movement Menuetto. But it was the propulsive energy of the concluding Molto allegro in all its complex glory that really brought down the house and led to a well-deserved standing ovation. Mr. Robertson and Concertmaster David Halen began the symphony immaculately groomed and ended it with ties slightly askew; that's how much they threw themselves into this performance, and it showed.
The St. Louis Symphony's Mozart festival continues on Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., September 29 -- October 1. The Friday concert features the Piano Concertos Nos. 14 and 20 and the Symphony No. 39. Saturday and Sunday the program will feature the Concertos Nos. 16 and 17 and the Symphony No. 40. Emanuel Ax will once again be the soloist and David Robertson will conduct.
The musicians might not be decked out quite as festively as they were for opening night, when many of the orchestra's women wore colorful evening gowns and Concertmaster David Halen sported a sparkly red vest and tie, but if this opening weekend's concert was any indication, the music will still be celebratory.