Concert Review: Georgia Pampel: Review of RSO’s ‘Mozart Tribute’

It was still two weeks before Valentine’s Day, but Mozart’s birthday bash could have also been seen as a Valentine, a gala double celebration of love that would be remembered for years to come. True, some people in the audience may remember it mostly as “the night that Maestro Steven Larsen programmed 17 numbers (!), but there was a logic in the list.

Yes, 17 (with, of course, 18 pages of program notes). It was the Rockford Symphony, with a few dozen (yes, DOZEN) guest artists to help fill the Coronado stage and call forth a masterly selection of works alternating some less familiar Mozart numbers with a very interesting assortment of musical tributes from other composers who each used their personal musical vocabulary to express respect for the boy genius born 250 years ago Friday, Jan. 27.

The earliest composer was Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), whose “Mozartiana” drew thematic material directly from Mozart, speaking in the rich string sounds that identify the Russian’s repertoire.

In 1956, for the bicentennial of Mozart’s birth, a commission went to the Swiss Frank Martin (1890-1974), who had worked for years in the challenging serial technique called “12-tone,” which too often sends some of us searching for ear plugs, but when he wanted to recall Mozart, Martin softened his lines and harmonies, to hold our attention to his own melodic contrapuntal expression.

A similar 1956 commission went to the German Boris Blacher (1903-1975), whose more lyrical style enabled him to incorporate fragments from Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, in his “Homage to Mozart,” a rondo that dances around with Mozart thematic fragments, which challenge the listener’s memory.

Then came the Russian composer Alexander Raskalov, born in 1953, who tried to place Mozart’s purity, delicate touch and naivete against the rough-shod modern world of technology and terror. Titled “5 Minutes Out of the Life of W.A.M.,” this work tapered off into a whisper at the end, as if hiding from the threats of the modern world.

Ah, but what about Mozart’s own music, and the dozens of guest artists? Yes. The 10 Mozart selections began with the Overture to “Clemency of Titus,” which was a fine choice, a new work to many of us, while a fine example of Mozart at his strongest, followed by his first symphony (written at age 7?), rarely performed, which might be said of many of his early symphonies. Even genius needs a few years to ripen, right? Though Larsen commented justly, “not bad for a 7-year-old.”

Operatic excerpts were a special treat of the evening, giving us full dramatic scenes with soprano Kathy Pyeatt rendering Donna Elvira’s blending of the heat of revenge with the pain of rejection, both with undertones of unrequited love, in her aria from Don Giovanni; and then Costanza’s response from “Abduction from the Seraglio (or Harem),” which challenges any coloratura soprano with its pyrotechnics and sweeping two-octave range and rapid runs. Pyeatt dazzled us all with her success in meeting the challenge, never compromising the rich tones of her fine voice.

Baritone Nicolai Janitzky portrayed the Count (from “Marriage of Figaro”) who is also looking for love, in other quarters and other styles, but with equally intense drive. The two singers joined together later, for the joyous scene in “Magic Flute,” where Papageno finally finds his Papagena, with the guidance of the three young voices from the Kantorei: Singing Boys of Rockford. The two bird/souls, once reunited, pretend to spar, as new lovers, over whether their children will be named after him or after her.

Joel Ross took his seat at the Steinway to play the lyrical “Elvira Madigan” movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, which anticipates a later generation of composers who worked with a more sensuous and dreamy texture. Ross, whose performances have yet to disappoint, whether he’s singing, dancing, conducting, playing jazz, training his young choristers, or playing a Mozart concerto, was honored Friday night when the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center awarded him this year’s Starr of Excellence Award, for an annual recognition for his outstanding contributions to the arts in Rockford.

But back to Saturday night. I mentioned “dozens”—yes, dozens, as the combined choirs of Northern Illinois University, trained under the direction of Eric Johnson, filed onto the stage to perform Mozart’s sublime “Ave verum corpus,” which he wrote as a gift to the parish that cared for his wife through her last confinement the year before his death. They then continued with the Agnus Dei and Communio from the Requiem, which he was working on at the time of his death. The simplicity and clarity of the “Ave verum” contrast sharply to the complexity of the Requiem excerpts, giving again a sample of Mozart’s own amazing richness.

And to end the concert that featured Mozart’s earliest symphony near the beginning, we then had the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony, the great “Jupiter,” to send us off into the rainy night with music ringing in our heads. And love, the many faces of love in the operas, the love shown to Mozart by the later composers, and Mozart’s own love of God in his religious expression, after a life in which music poured out of him in an endless flow of what we can only call genius.

An evening skillfully planned, with enough variety to keep it from seeming the least repetitious; full of surprises, to show us in new ways why the musical world is celebrating once more, while still trying to probe the mysteries of Mozart’s lifework, which still commands our attention and study 250 years later.

From the Feb. 8-14, 2006, issue

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