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Mozart Wins a Convert

July 24, 2007

On a January morning a few years ago, I received a telephone call from an eminent professor of classical music. "Guess whose birthday it is!" he giggled. "No idea." His hint, "Your least favorite of the great composers!" caused me to reply, "Ah — it must be Mozart!"
But the many pleasures of the first program of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, as well as advancing age, have changed my mind. Friday at the Herbst Theatre, maestro George Cleve and the festival orchestra, now in its 33rd year, presented an instrumental program full of delights. From the first strains of the Divertimento for oboe, two horns and strings, K. 251, to the last joyful chord of Symphony No. 34, I experienced Mozart moment after Mozart moment, and it was all good.

Particularly charming were the evening's two soloists. Esteemed pianist Janina Fialkowska presented a mature, balanced, and affecting reading of Piano Concerto No. 22, K. 482. Mozart wrote it in the winter of 1785, shortly after he began work on The Marriage of Figaro. Designed as a vehicle for his own talents, it was immensely successful. It could just as well have been designed for Fialkowska’s talents, considering her flawless rendition, including a thrilling first-movement cadenza.

At one performance in 1785, which the Emperor himself attended, the concerto, written in E-flat, was so well-received that Mozart was asked to repeat the Andante second movement. I would have wished the same from Fialkowska.

Her unerring sense of phrasing and line highlighted the Andante's sonorous beauties. In its minor mode, the second movement features an aching theme reminiscent of a mournful song. Its cleverly disguised variations present the many possibilities available to the composer in a larger orchestra that for the first time included clarinets. The minor spell of the slow movement was broken to great effect by the entrance of the wind section in a major variation. Although solemn, the distinctly pastoral timbres conjured visions of happier fields.

Those fields became the setting for a last-movement rondo, a clever crowd-pleaser that subtly transforms the opening of the concerto into a rollicking finale. Noble yet lighthearted, serious yet playful, and above all romantic, Fialkowska’s interpretation of Mozart proved satisfying.
A Bassoonist Charms
A very different kind of soloist took the stage after the intermission. Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, K.191, is perhaps the only bassoon concerto regularly heard in concert. Yet it pleases every time, especially when played by an artist like Rufus Olivier.

Stepping up from his chair in the back of the orchestra, Olivier marched to the front of the stage with a clear purpose — to delight and to entertain. His repartee with Maestro Cleve revealed a wry sense of humor and an easy showmanship. Yet as soon as he began to play, my attention was diverted from his stage presence to the marvelous sound emanating from his bassoon. It is not often that a listener gets to use adjectives like purling, liquescent, or lissome when referring to a bassoon, yet all of these apply to Olivier’s performance.

The purling stream of notes in the first movement rocked me into euphoria; liquescent and ethereal at the same time, the second movement expanded into a beautiful reverie; lissome and lithe, the dancing jollity of Olivier’s bassoon swept me away in the last. What a treat.

Remarkable, too, was Cleve's sensitivity throughout the concert. With a deep understanding of the music and his orchestra, Cleve produced convincing readings of every piece on the program. Symphony No. 34 was the last Mozart wrote for Salzburg and the first of his three final symphonic excursions in C major. The others were No. 36 ("Linz"), and the greatest, No. 41 ("Jupiter"). Cleve conducted without a score, thus enabling an even more intimate contact with his players for this exciting work, complete with martial trumpets and drums.

The orchestra performed admirably. The winds and brass were able, but the orchestra's true strength lay in the string section, especially the second violins and violas, who brought out all the intricacies and delights of the inner voices.

My confession concluded, I can now say that I think I'm finally old enough to truly enjoy Mozart, especially under the baton of George Cleve.

Rebekah Ahrendt holds the artist's diploma in viola da gamba and historical performance practice from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Currently, she is a graduate student in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.