With the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth (January 27, 1756) just days away, the Niagara Symphony hopped onto the birthday bandwagon at its latest Masterworks outing. Even before a note was heard, the NS “voice” admonished the capacity crowd to “Add some Amadeus to your life” by purchasing royalty-free merchandise at the interval. No better way to mark the milestone of, arguably, the planet’s finest composer by shopping and rekindling the total lack of respect for his incredible genius with the same fervor as Amadeus (cross-reference below).
However, before sharing his sublime Symphony No. 33, music director Daniel Swift chose to set the table with Jeffrey Ryan’s brief and succinct Visions of Joy. Based on Beethoven’s theme for “Ode to Joy” (Finale of Symphony No. 9), Ryan’s 1997 Windsor Symphony commission wanted to explore “questions about the source of musical inspiration and the phenomenon of the ‘inner ear.’” That all seemed fair enough, but Swift decided to provide a “road map” that was longer (and less concise) than the music. We were told what was coming and, accordingly, were deprived of the chance to “hear” for ourselves. Perhaps an alternative presentation strategy for “Musica Brevis” might be to play the work through, offer commentary, then play it again to see/hear if we agree (and surely the composer would get a double payout!).
The B-flat major symphony that followed was a hit-and-miss affair for one of Mozart’s most challenging scores. The “misses” were led by the horns who seemed intent on pushing out their notes rather than releasing them into the hall and outer ears of the listeners. The strings managed to get close but seldom into the wonderful themes and inner voices that abound on every page (best were the delicate basses—the violins being prone to missteps and errant open strings while the violas just couldn’t mange the Herculean triplets of the “Allegro assai).” The oboes and bassoons acquitted themselves well, but couldn’t pull along their colleagues to the same level of distinction.
Thank goodness for Stephen Sitarski (replacing the indisposed violinist, Mayumi Seiler). The current concertmaster of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony brought his magnificent tone production and nearly-unerring forays into the heavens of Beethoven’s only violin concerto, delivering a performance whose outer movements will linger in memory for years to come.
The band sensed his commitment and valiantly followed his lead, but when push came to shove as the passion of the music drove the lines and ideas forward, Swift couldn’t quite keep pace, yielding “in-the-cracks” ensemble. In the ethereal “Larghetto” the recently self-described “world-class theatre” managed to have one of its over-heated bulbs eradicate the deeply personal aura of the cadenza, only to be overshadowed by yet another errant horn intervention. To everyone’s credit, the “Rondo” overcame all odds and sent the enthusiastic audience out of their seats, hoping for more.
A new feature in JWR, and in conjunction the Niagara Symphony Association, newcomers to the subscription series concerts are invited to attend free of charge then offer their candid first-time opinion.
Today’s listener is an early-fifties accessibility renovation contractor.
JWR: How would you compare the two first-half works?
CC: The first piece gave me an adrenalin kick from the different level of the sounds, with much more contrast than the symphony. There, the first three movements all sounded the same, especially the violins. The last movement had more volume and change. I could certainly paint to the flow. For me, music is a background to my work—it relieves the constant banging. I felt that the conductor’s description helped, but never heard what he described as the dentist’s drill.
JWR: The Beethoven concerto is a much longer work. Was there enough variety to maintain your interest?
CC: I was captivated from the start to the very end. [The music] elevated me from my seat and kept me there. Mozart had much more string [tone] and became very monotonous with no up and down sensations; Beethoven had more colour, rush and calm. I enjoyed watching the [conductor’s] hand motions, how he asked the instruments to join in and could see the correlation to changes in volume.
JWR: Will you be back?
CC: Yes! The concert relaxed me and gave me the opportunity not to think, but to listen. When I shut my eyes, I saw myself in a field … the music calmed me down. JWR