Mozarts and Bachs: Allegedly “Like Father, Like Son”

United StatesUnited States  Leopold and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, Johann Sebastian and Johann Christian Bach: Eric Garcia (conductor), Cordula Merks (concertmaster and leader), Susan Gulkis Assadi (viola soloist and leader), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 9.3.2012 (BJ)

The conductor originally announced for this concert, the eminent early-music specialist Reinhard Goebel, canceled “for personal reasons.” That was regrettable, this being one of those lightly-scored, mostly classical and pre-classical programs that the Seattle Symphony seizes the chance of programming when half its forces are a little way up the road serving as orchestra for Seattle Opera. Assistant conductor Eric Garcia took over for the two symphonies on the program, and Cordula Merks (who joined the first violins last season) and principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi led respectively the performances of the Third Brandenburg Concerto and a viola arrangement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

That kind of shared leadership is highly appropriate to music of the 18th century, but the concert turned out to be a rather mixed bag. It was not that there was anything underpowered about the playing. On the contrary, the Third Brandenburg was subjected to a merrily cavalier dash-through, with somewhat spongy string textures, and tempos so breathless as to leave no scope for the fascinating interplay of contrapuntal entries, especially in the finale, to make their effect.

This was preceded in the first half of the concert by one of Mozart père’s many (if few surviving) symphonies, the so-called “Neue Lambacher” Symphony in G major, and succeeded by a G-minor Symphony, Op. 6 No. 6, by Bach fils—a composer Wolfgang greatly admired. The concert was presented under the title “Like Father, Like Son,” but at least in the case of the Mozarts “unlike” might have been a better description, for Leopold’s unmemorable if amiable piece comes nowhere the level of even the least distinguished of his son’s works.

The Bach symphony, on the other hand, came as a surprising breath of drama and intensity, calling to mind rather the empfindsam and often violently eccentric style of his older brother Carl Philipp Emanuel than Johann Christian’s more usual air of smilingly graceful elegance. It was with this work, after a rather pedestrian account of the Leopold Mozart, that Eric Garcia came into his own, drawing suitably incisive playing from the small string section and some excellent contributions from the horns led by Jeff Fair.

The second half of the program was devoted to an anonymous early-18th-century version of the younger Mozart’s great Clarinet Concerto with the solo part arranged for viola. With Susan Gulkis Assadi serving as a thoroughly accomplished soloist and leader, the version worked quite well—better, I thought, than the comparable arrangement for viola of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, where the texture loses all clarity through the absence of the wind instrument’s contrasted tone-color. There were a few departures from the familiar musical text, but this did not detract from the interest of being able to enjoy a new viewpoint on a very well-known masterpiece. The process offers insights that can enhance our enjoyment of the original, and given the dearth of concertos actually conceived for the viola, it is understandable that outstanding violists like Ms. Assadi should jump at the chance of expanding their repertoire with such rejigged works.

Bernard Jacobson