While visiting my family in Tacoma, WA this past week, we went with my mother and some of her friends to a concert with the University of Puget Sound Orchestra (one of my mother’s friends is on the faculty there). The program featured the winner of the school’s concerto competition, Daniel Bahr, in a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and the Symphony no. 40 by Mozart. Christophe Chagnard, he of the Northwest Sinfonietta, was the conductor.
The first and most important thing to note was the turnout. I played God knows how many concerts when I was in college, and none of our performances came close to this. I will grant that the halls at the schools I went to were bigger, but the Schneebeck Concert Hall on the UPS campus is still a 500-seat auditorium. And it was packed. It was literally a standing-room only crowd, with small groups clustered at the doorways. My mother mentioned that all the concerts were like this, and if that is the case, I will issue a giant kudos (hopefully the kind with Snickers in it!) to the University of Puget Sound, because the students have created a wonderfully electric and supportive environment for the concerts. I hope it is the same for the other artistic groups on campus, because it was really, really great to see.
The performances were likewise worthy. A liberal arts school with a small music program obviously has players with limitations in the technical execution of music, but these did not interfere with a quality performance. Bahr, the piano soloist, played the role of Lisztian rock star well, banging away furiously at the keyboard during some flashy passagework, but settling into a very smooth and musical approach during the Allegro Moderato (which also featured some fine playing from the principal cello). The orchestral accompaniment was solid, although there were some intonation issues in the winds, but frankly I’ve heard professional wind sections struggle with the tuning, especially at the beginning of the work. The work’s structure presents a unique challenge, and while the transformations of the themes were not always readily apparent in the relationship between soloist and orchestra, it was still a cohesive reading and had plenty of drama to boot.
After intermission, Chagnard spoke about Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, using tremendously effusive language. Of particular note was his assertion that Mozart’s final three symphonies pushed the form so far that it required the genius of Beethoven to finally move the symphony forward. Anyone reading this may already know about my fondness for Haydn, but in case you don’t, I have a fondness for Haydn. Which is why if I had the time or inclination, I might have attempted to scream something about the “Oxford” or all twelve of the “London” symphonies. With respect to Mozart 39-41 (and trust me, I respect the hell out of Mozart in general and all three of his last symphonies in this particular instance), not a one of them are as musically compelling as Oxford, Surprise, Miracle, Clock, or London. I’m certain that Maestro Chagnard meant no slight with his comments, but I don’t let anything slide when it comes to my boy Haydn.
Good news, though…I forgot about the whole thing once the music got going, in part because Mozart 40 is so awesome (but not as awesome as Haydn!!!!!). The tempo of the first movement was aggressive, but it never lost its edge. The second movement dragged on a bit, sagging a bit under its own weight, but the third movement recaptured the fire, with a really pronounced effect on the opening hemiola that was jarring in its effectiveness. The trio was well executed, not an easy thing to do, and I spiritually high-fived the horns for a quality effort. The finale was brisk and lively, and the violins were up to the task. It was a terrifically energetic performance.
There is something very appealing in hearing an amateur performance of great orchestral music, because there is a freshness that simply cannot exist in the finest professional ensembles. How many times has the Cleveland Orchestra played Mozart 40? It’s human nature to get a little auto-pilot in those situations. But the beauty of these types of orchestras performing this great music is that this is often their first (and for some of them, only) opportunity to perform these masterpieces. The results may not always bear the shimmer and shine of a polished technical performance, but the enthusiasm and passion are palpable in the playing, and that’s a much more difficult aesthetic to achieve. I salute the orchestra at UPS for their effort, and I salute the crowd for being one of the best concert crowds I’ve ever seen. They seem to have a really great thing going there.