Chagnard’s Cuban Celebration Provides Uncomplicated Pleasure

United StatesUnited States Chagnard and Mozart: Awadagin Pratt (conductor and piano), Northwest Sinfonietta, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 19.4.2013 (BJ)

Chagnard: Embargo (world premiere)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543

You wouldn’t necessarily expect, with two Mozart masterpieces on the program, that the world premiere of a work by the orchestra’s music director would provide some of a concert’s biggest pleasures. I’ve long admired Christophe Chagnard for his conducting talent, but it was something of a surprise, at this Northwest Sinfonietta concert led by guest conductor and pianist Awadagin Pratt, to discover that Chagnard is also no mean composer.

Inspired by his experiences during the Sinfonietta’s recent Cuban visit, Embargo offered half an hour of uncomplicated enjoyment. There is nothing remotely pretentious about this six-movement suite: just a melodious and expertly scored celebration of popular Cuban rhythms, including cha-cha-cha, bolero, and mambo. Pratt drew vividly colored playing from the orchestra, and the Sinfonietta’s principal timpanist and percussionist, the aptly-named Matt Drumm, shared honors with Seattle-based Antonio Gomez for an assured rendering of the work’s prominent and tinglingly lively percussion writing.

Back in October 2007, with Douglas Boyd conducting the Seattle Symphony, Pratt gave an account of the solo part in Mozart’s A-major Concerto, K. 488, which, as I wrote at the time, impressed me with its “compelling artistry and admirable technical polish.” This time, his performance in the same work as both soloist and guest conductor of the Northwest Sinfonietta was an event that almost didn’t happen.

Just before the concert was due to begin, Pratt’s wife went into labor—three weeks early, and she was duly delivered of a baby boy. For a time there were discussions about a substitute piece, with Christophe Chagnard conducting in his guest’s place, but Pratt manfully took the stage, and led a concert of considerable merit.

In planning my review of Pratt’s double act as conductor and soloist, I had been intending, I must confess, to paraphrase Desdemona in Othello and write that “I did perceive here a divided duty.” A master like Daniel Barenboim can manage—as one imagines Mozart himself must have managed!—to combine the two functions without detriment to either, but Pratt doesn’t yet quite pull the trick off. This was a much less subtle performance of the concerto’s solo part than he gave in 2007, and both pianistically and orchestrally it seemed to grow increasingly—and in so sunny and delicate a work inappropriately—aggressive as it went on. But in view of where his mind must have been as he put hands to keyboard, I shall say no more about that.

After a not entirely convincing start, the symphony of the evening, Mozart’s No. 39 in E-flat major, was much more enjoyable. To criticize the conductor for an essentially 4/4 phrasing of the slow introduction, instead of Mozart’s prescribed alla breve, may seem picayune—but his emphatic division of the beats did stiffen the the pulse of the dotted rhythms into something less flowing than the two-beat notation surely intended. In the main Allegro, too, emphatic paragraphing by a slow-down at one transitional point—effective and stimulating the first time we heard it—yielded to the law of diminishing returns, sounding the third time around merely predictable and mannered.

In welcome contrast, the slow movement that followed was phrased with an admirably easy flow, and from here on the performance was a distinct success, with some brilliant feather-light articulation from the woodwinds, and comparably assured playing by everyone else. Best of all was the minuet, which danced along at a lithe and stylish one-beat-to-the-bar, with a grace that precluded any hint of pomposity. This was so good as to make the omission of the repeats in the da capo (after some excellent clarinet work in the trio) decidedly regrettable, as was the omission of the dramatically arresting second repeat in the finale, which nevertheless went with an infectious zest to end the evening on a highly positive note.

Bernard Jacobson