Poetic Inspiration: A Poet Tackles Mozart at the Mostly Mozart Festival

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival (5): Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Jonathan Nott (Conductor), Juho Pohjonen (Piano), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 17.8.2011 (SSM)

 Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K.488 (1786)
Beethoven:Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806)

This Mostly Mozart Festival program, though not mostly of Mozart, was nevertheless the composer’s night in terms of both the high quality of the music and the exceptional playing by the soloist. Just as I was remembering another Mozart piano concerto performed last year by Stephen Hough at the series’ closing concert (which I did not like), Jonathan Nott and pianist Juho Pohjonen came on stage.

What could this conductor, soloist and orchestra possibly offer me to rekindle my feelings about a piece of music that I’ve lived with all my life? The answer is simple: have a poet play the piano. I am not using “poet” or “poetic” as a substitute for “romantic.” There was nothing romantic about this performance. In point of fact, it was quite the opposite. It started out with a moderately paced Allegro, played crisply under Nott’s direction. It seemed forever before Pohjonen lifted his hands to play the Steinway, but when he did, from the very first run of sixteenth notes, I knew this performance was going to be special. He played the keys as if they were simply an extension of his body. This was the most, delicate, graceful and effortless performance of this work that I have ever heard. It would seem that this ability to get to the core of this music could only be achieved after years of mastering the work’s technical and musical aspects, yet as far as I can determine this was his first performance – an amazing achievement considering that Pohjonen has only been concertizing since 2005. In both his slightly hunched-over-the-piano style and in his ability to so sensitively bring out each line of music, he reminded me of the great Glenn Gould. It would be interesting to hear him perform Bach.

The pianist was called on stage to standing ovations and played an encore by Edvard Grieg, “The Bridal Procession Passes” from Scenes of Country Life. This delightful little throwaway may be familiar to some as it was used again in his Peer Gynt. Pohjonen played this piece nimbly. He could, I am sure, have chosen from some dozens of dazzling scores that would impress his audience with his technical prowess but in keeping with the poetic nature of his performance chose a bit of poetry, instead. Bravo!

The program opened with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Surprisingly, there is no mention in the program notes that the real source of these works is not the late eighteenth-century masters, but the late sixteenth-century Giovanni Gabrieli. His Sacrae Symphoniae of 1597 and others contain instrumentalists who played together in sympathy with each other, hence one definition of symphony.

Here is a clip from a Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae:

And one from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments:

I found the performance of this work somewhat lifeless. It should have been spiky and jazzy but was very thin and flat. It may not have been a piece that either the instrumentalists and/or the conductor felt strongly about. A performance as poor as this makes the music sound like what one thinks “modern music” is: disconnected, disjointed, and without rememberable phrases or tunes, but this would not have been the case here if it had been played with more commitment.

The performance of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony had tremendous verve and vitality with the brass and percussion at times overpowering the strings. I probably was not the only one whose eyes kept focusing on the tympanist. There were no long breaks for him in this performance and his playing was impeccable. This symphony could have been given a subtitle like the “Eroica” or “Pastorale” if this appellation weren’t such a mouthful: Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, “The Tympani.” The concert ended on a festive note with all stops out from all the instrumentalists. Chalk up one more event to a series that has been in all respects inspired.

Stan Metzger

This series continues at Lincoln Center through August 27. See Mostly Mozart Festival.