The programs for most Symphoria concerts are carefully planned so the works we offer fit together into a coherent whole. This afternoon’s celebration of Civic Morning Musicals’ 125th birthday was conceived rather differently. Instead of starting with the repertoire, we picked two of our favorite former concerto-competition winners, pianist Steven Heyman and violinist Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, and let each them of them choose the concerto he or she would like to present.
The resulting combination might seem odd, for at first glance the two works appear to have little in common. Here we get Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) at his purest and most classical, coupled with Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a century and a half later, writing some of his most gloriously romantic and, to quote conductor Michelle Merrill, “enrapturing” music. Not only are their idioms poles apart, but the processes of composition were radically different, too. Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 23 seemingly without effort. In fact, during winter of 1785-86, he wrote not only this concerto but two others as well—along with the opera The Marriage of Figaro, the brief farce The Impresario, and numerous other bits and pieces. The birth of the Barber Violin Concerto was far more difficult. It was commissioned, in 1939, to be performed by violinist Iso Briselli; and Barber wrote the lyrical first two movements during a fairly relaxed time in Europe. The approaching war, however, threw his life out of balance, forcing him to return hurriedly to America, where he finished off the piece with a short, virtuosic finale. Was the dramatic shift in mood between the second and third movements inspired by the shift in political landscape, as some suggest? We can’t be sure; but in any case, Briselli didn’t like the finale and rejected the piece. One can only imagine how Briselli felt years later, when the concerto emerged not simply as one of Barber’s masterpieces, but arguably as the Great American Violin Concerto.
Despite the outward differences, however, the Mozart and Barber concertos have striking similarities as well. Three stand out. First, except for what Michelle calls that “crazy and frenetic” finale of the Barber, both are fairly introverted. The Mozart is notably missing the trumpets and drums that add pomp to so many of his mature concertos, and it has none of the sturm und drang theatricality that we hear, say, in the C-Minor Concerto that followed it three weeks later. Similarly, as Sarah points out, “The Barber is not one of these huge, symphonic concertos, like the Brahms or Tchaikovsky, which feel like a symphony with a soloist out front.” Certainly, any early listeners who expected a reprise of the crushing intensity that marked his First Essay—which had won him worldwide fame when Toscanini championed it two years before—must have been disconcerted by the concerto’s reflective tone. Sarah wouldn’t go so far as to call it a chamber concerto—“but there’s something about it that’s a little bit more intimate. Maybe it has that in common with Mozart.”
Second, both works are fundamentally lyrical. Of course, Steve points out, that’s characteristic of Mozart’s piano music more generally: “You can think about most of the music that he wrote for the keyboard in a vocal sense.” But it’s especially true of the Concerto No. 23 (and its two surrounding siblings). Mozart was, after all, in the middle of writing Figaro, and as Michelle puts it, “his mind was racing with more ideas than his opera could contain. These concertos are the excess.” This lyricism comes out for Steve most clearly in what he calls the “operatic” central Adagio, with its wide leaps: “It’s so dramatic, so sad, dignified, and uplifting at the same time.” As for the Barber: Sarah points out that “the first two movements are all about sound and beautiful long lines.” Indeed, the first movement has one of the most gorgeous openings of any concerto in the repertoire.
Most important, though, the works share a striking depth of feeling. True, the outer movements of Mozart are undeniably sunny. Knowing that the concert was going to take place in St. Paul’s, in fact, and recognizing the character of a chamber orchestra, Steve decided to program the Piano Concerto No. 23 in part with the hope that the performance would be illuminated by sunlight coming through the stained glass. But the middle movement, the concerto’s real center of gravity, is something apart. Figaro is one of Mozart’s most profound explorations of what it is to be human; and this movement—his only movement in F-sharp minor—has a similar depth. Steve points out that playing it gives him an “exalted feeling.” In fact, he says, “I thought I was going to come unglued the first time I played it.” The Barber has a similar profundity: Sarah finds the middle movement “heartbreaking” in its beauty. One of its many wonders is its oboe solo. Our first oboist Jillian Honn has been “absolutely in love with it for a long time” because “it demands such poignancy and virtuosity. I think oboists get both excited and slightly terrified of such a spotlit solo. In a way the combination of those sensations makes for a truly cathartic experience.” The audience is unlikely to be terrified—but what Jillian calls the composer’s “unmistakable brand of bittersweet soaring” is liable to lead to a similarly cathartic effect.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org