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Youth vs. Experience

April 1, 2008

The first of two concerts by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall, required some program shuffling. The venerable Sir Neville Marriner was filling in for the indisposed pianist-conductor Murray Perahia. With the presence of 21-year-old pianist Yuja Wang, the combination of youth and experience made for a zesty evening of virtuosity.
Marriner opened and closed with the two symphonies originally programmed: Mozart's Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297, the "Paris" Symphony, and Haydn's Symphony No, 104, also in D major, the "London" Symphony. For the announced Mozart Concerto No. 21, Wang substituted Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. But as both the Mozart symphony and the Mendelssohn concerto are relatively short, Marriner opened the second half with the latter composer's early Sinfonia No. 10 in B Minor for strings.

Even more surprising was a generous offering of no fewer than three encores, when only one was expected: the slow movement of Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony, the so-called Fifth (it's actually his Second); the Overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro; and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1. Audience reaction was such that the performers could have danced all night.

Marriner was his usual solid self, a no-nonsense conductor who draws sterling playing from the orchestra that he founded many moons ago. Tempos were right on target, balances were superb, all the tricky passagework was dispatched with ease. There was never a wisp of anything other than perfect intonation.

Mozart wrote his share of vivacious music, but nothing more so than the "Paris" Symphony, which was in effect a job application. He made his Paris trip in hopes of landing a court appointment, or at least a major patron. So he geared his symphony to French fashions of the time: three movements, not four; no formal introduction, such as was expected in Vienna and London; flashy rushes of notes in the violins. (All Mozart garnered was the death of his mother, who had come along for the trip.)

All those virtues in the performance of the Mozart applied equally to Haydn's last grand symphony, actually the 12th of his London symphonies in the Viennese style. The formal (and soberly dramatic) introduction is lengthy and thus a perfect foil to the utterly cheerful Allegro — which perhaps Haydn intended as a joke (lead them to expect something grim, then jab an elbow into the ribs).
The Puzzling Case of Felix
And then there's Mendelssohn, whose common relegation to the second tier of composers has always puzzled me. His flaw, if it is one, was that he was a flawless gentleman who avoided all forms of rudeness. That was as true of his music as of his basic personality, with which he never sought to shock his public. But the total musicality of his many talents was amazing.

Mendelssohn could turn out masterpieces by age 12. It's surprising that the B-minor Sinfonia for Strings — one of five from 1823 — already carries the melodic fingerprints of his mature style. Actually, the Sinfonia is more like a formal Overture with its two movements: a soulful Adagio followed by a bristling Allegro. It's the most frequently programmed of his 13 sinfonias and a nice piece.

As for his piano works, it may seem difficult to imagine, but in the mid-19th century Mendelssohn's G-minor piano concerto was the most frequently performed and admired of all piano concertos up to that time. Virtually every pianist learned it, and indeed it was mandatory piano repertoire at the Paris Conservatory. It even became the subject of Berlioz' rather famous infernal piano story: The Conservatory, it seems, had a piano that kept playing the concerto, even when there was no one sitting at the keyboard. They chopped it up, and still it played the Mendelssohn Concerto, on and on. Finally, they took it into a courtyard to burn it and get the damned thing to stop.

Wang's brilliant performance of the Mendelssohn was the finest I've heard since the heyday of Rudolf Serkin. The Beijing native is currently completing her studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute, but she has already been playing major works with a number of major orchestras around the world, including concertos by Grieg, Ravel, and Beethoven with the San Francisco Symphony.

While her technical prowess is most impressive, her high level of musicality shone out to an exceptional degree. Wang is notable for small things, such as the delicate and always tasteful application of smidgens of rubato to her phrasing. Such things can't be taught, but have to be intuitive, and form a major barometer for judging a natural talent. The clarity of her twinkle-fingered passagework during blinding tempos all point to a major career. I doubt that even Perahia plays better piano.

Those three encores were like mother's milk to Marriner and his merry band, which tossed them off with nary a burp. But it was the performance of the hum-along Brahms that proved to be their trump card in an altogether great concert program.
Three Ms, Followed by Meretricious
Monday’s second "3M" program turned out to be less distinguished. The best of it consisted of Marriner conducting Mozart and Mendelssohn. But pianist Wang managed to dampen her reputation as a tasteful musician with as vulgar a display as I’ve encountered by any pianist. The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, and, following intermission, Mendelssohn’s joyous Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, the "Italian."

Wang's performance of the Mozart was stellar in dynamics and clarity, as she improvised basic arpeggios in the first movement where the piano part is largely absent from the score. Fine. But she added her own cadenza, which was appallingly out of sync with the sobriety of Mozart’s most tragic concerto. The mood of this concerto befits the most serious episodes of Don Giovanni or Mozart’s Requiem. What Wang’s cadenza offered sounded like Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy on drugs.

This was then compounded by her two solo encores, music of even greater claptrap than her cadenza. First came a rhapsodic horror on Mozart’s Turkish Rondo, garish in all its being, and then a sentimentalized transcription of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, replete with oozy chromatics of the Rachmaninov sort.

Those represented a triumph of performer ego over good taste, not helped by the fact that she was having trouble finding all the notes in the former, to say nothing of her "happy hour" approach to the Gluck. How a pianist who played two concertos so stylishly correct could slump into a misplayed cadenza and two vaudeville encores is a mystery. Someone ought to put a word in her ear — like, “don’t!”

The Academy played brilliantly throughout the evening. Marriner took a broad tempo during the Overture to emphasize the gravitas of Mendelssohn’s wonderful seascape. The storm still managed to rage, and the duo for clarinets near the close of the piece was wonderfully, exceptionally moving. Marriner even gave clarinetists Marie Lloyd and Helen Paskins a bow; they deserved it.

Things really caught fire for the "Italian" Symphony, which was all vim and sunshine, beautifully molded in perfect tempos. Mendelssohn’s Saltarello finale nearly had us dancing in the aisles. The general performance made it one of the few times I’ve wished a conductor had taken the long first movement repeat. Alas, he didn’t.

For encores, Marriner repeated the Andante from Mendelssohn’s "Restoration" Symphony and Mozart’s Figaro Overture from the first program, but didn’t repeat Sunday’s Brahms.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.