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at Saint Thomas the Apostle

January 27


at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest

February 23

It seems odd that only a few years ago Mozart was as far removed from the early-music movement as Stravinsky. Then period-instrument ensembles brought the old master to life, and suddenly the music would never be the same. Now period-instrument performances of Mozart are the standard by which all others are measured, and performers feel obliged to indicate if they are not playing period instruments. Even those performers who still play Mozart on modern instruments–and you can’t blame most of them, since one can’t dabble in period instruments very successfully–often do so with attention to historical principles and the latest Mozart scholarship. That has made for more interesting, lively performances that emphasize smaller ensembles, purer string tone, brisker tempi, and a more even ratio of winds to strings–rather than winds swimming in a sea of string sound, as was the 19th-century custom and is still the aesthetic of many conductors today.

Of course attention to historical principles doesn’t guarantee interesting music making, any more than a lack of attention to them automatically voids it. All of the elements that make a successful performance are as true for a period-instrument performance as for a modern-instrument one. The materials and approach are different, but the creativity of the performer is still paramount.

I say all this because two Chicago ensembles recently gave all-Mozart concerts, and the period-instrument ensemble, the City Musick, was far more effective and interesting than the modern-instrument ensemble, Music of the Baroque. The extraordinary difference was the result of their music directors’ interpretations of Mozart. The City Musick’s Elaine Scott Banks understands Mozart in a truly unique way. Music of the Baroque’s Thomas Wikman doesn’t seem to have a clue to what Mozart is all about.

I don’t mean to pick on Wikman, for I suspect that when Banks comes to Bach’s Saint John Passion next month, she won’t be able to bring to that piece half of what Wikman can. Wikman has a wonderful understanding of Bach and makes a superb case for it–even if you don’t agree with it. Banks has done very little Bach, and what she has done has been credible. But she doesn’t have the special affinity for him that she has for Mozart. In fact, I honestly don’t know of a single great interpreter of the one who was or is also a great interpreter of the other. There are plenty of people who do credible, generic interpretations of both, but no true masters of both. Only Bach and Mozart represent perfection in music. Perhaps in a lifetime one is permitted a great understanding of only one–though performers who can do even one on that level are rare. We are quite lucky to have a fine interpreter of each in Chicago, for there are bigger cities that don’t have one.

City Musick has discovered an all-too-sad reality about the Chicago public–that it can stand only so much Mozart, no matter how stylishly it’s done. Though the group presented a five-concert Mozart series last season, this year they cut back to a single concert–albeit a pretty spectacular one.

The program, which occurred on Mozart’s 234th birthday, began with the Symphony no. 28. It opened with a majestic Italianate movement that featured superb, crisp ensembling and lyrical phrasing, though it was performed a tad on the slow side. The wind-to-string balance was generally good, though it favored the strings a bit too much. The second movement had a flowing, ethereal quality to it; it was very gracefully done, marred only by a natural-horn flub (the horns were also quite tentative during the third movement). The finale featured an effective use of edge bowing and built to an effective climax, but the second violins weren’t cutting through in solo passages. Repeats throughout the symphony were done with virtually no contrast.

A rarely heard concert aria followed, Bella mia fiamma (“Good-bye, my beloved”), which was given a spectacular performance by Mozart soprano par excellence, Patrice Michaels Bedi. Bedi was featured in City Musick’s performance of Mozart’s C-minor Mass last year, among other things, and was sensational. She is the ideal Mozart singer: she has a celestial quality to her singing, she has great purity of tone, though there is nothing lightweight about her voice, and her projection is excellent. She incorporates vibrato, but never excessively, and her technique, range, and vocal flexibility are superb. She made quite a convincing case for this aria, and was given such an ovation that she repeated its climax. This was the first voice I heard at Saint Thomas, City Musick’s new city venue; the church was wonderfully reverberant, yet every note was clearly discernible.

The natural spot for an intermission would have been after the aria, but for some reason a fortepiano was carried over to the center area, and the orchestra moved around for the Piano Concerto no. 21, with David Schrader as soloist. This created asymmetrical “halves” of the concert–the first an hour and 15 minutes, the second a half hour. Worse, the delicate and fragile fortepiano was grossly out of tune, having sat there unattended all that time and then having been suddenly jarred. If the second half had begun with the concerto, the fortepiano could have been placed and tuned in the very spot it would be played–right before it would be used.

David Schrader, like Banks, is a master Mozart interpreter. When he performs a Mozart piano concerto, he also plays continuo during the non-solo passages, a standard 18th-century practice. That, together with his subtle and poetic approach, means the fortepiano doesn’t jump out at you the way a modern piano usually does. So even with the upper register of his instrument painfully out of tune, this was still a special performance.

The horns were tentative, as they were all evening, but the ensemble was quite responsive to Schrader and Banks, who managed to create a memorable dialogue. Some would have found the famous andante too brisk and less syrupy than they are used to, but I found it quite effective–as were musicologist Richard Maunder’s cadenzas and ornamentation in the outer movements. The opening cadenza was certainly shorter and less elaborate than we are used to, but it was far more appropriate to the style. Crucial to Maunder’s thesis about this concerto and other Mozart fortepiano works of this period is that Mozart used a fortepiano with pedals–not pedals to sustain the sound from the upper keyboard as on a modern piano, but a separate bottom keyboard of pedals played with the feet as on an organ or pedal harpsichord. Unfortunately, such an instrument has not survived, though copies are now in the works. So it was a bit premature to advertise this performance as the “premiere” of the Maunder edition. That will have to wait for a pedal-fortepiano performance, which I hope City Musick and Schrader will do one day.

The Coronation Mass was composed in Salzburg as an Easter mass, though it may also have been used later for the coronation of either Leopold II or Francis II, the source of the title. It is very accessible and short enough to fit within an actual liturgy, unlike the more elaborate concert masses. Banks did a very stylish job with the work, but neither the choir nor the soloists–soprano Bedi, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, tenor Jeffrey Thomas, and baritone Nathaniel Watson–were very balanced. Neither Lane nor Thomas could be heard very well, though Bedi was glorious again in the Agnus Dei.

The program concluded with one of Mozart’s last and most famous short works, the motet Ave verum corpus. Unfortunately, the chorus was very unbalanced, with overpowering sopranos and little distinct sound from the other three sections.

Music of the Baroque’s program began with the Symphony no. 25, the “Little” G-minor symphony, under normal circumstances one of my favorite Mozart symphonies. It became obvious as soon as Wikman began that he had ignored the tempo indication on the score–allegro con brio–for his tempo was practically dirgelike. In fact, his tempo remained the same throughout the first three movements of the piece, as if there had been a slow, internal metronome at work. That alone would have ensured disaster, but there was also his lack of dynamic contrast, his nonlyrical, choppy phrasing, and his stodgy, heavy-handed approach. It was the kind of performance that leads people who have never heard Mozart before to wonder what all the fuss is about. Things picked up a bit for the finale, but the overall sound was directionless and nonflowing–things you’d think Mozart couldn’t possibly be. The horns, modern ones with valves, had as much–if not more–intonation trouble as City Musick’s natural horns.

The “Great” but unfinished C-minor Mass fared considerably better. Though Wikman’s chorus can’t approach Banks’s for clear diction and elegant phrasing, its sections are strong and balanced. In fact, Wikman seemed to be carried away by the sheer sound of the chorus, and often let it overpower everything else. The tempi were slow, though not quite the funeral marches of the symphony, and the solo quartet was unbalanced in its projection, timbre, and technique. Bedi (who else?) was the soprano and demonstrated her usual genius with this music. The “Et incarnatus est,” though more stylishly sung by her last spring with City Musick, couldn’t help but be a beautiful moment; it made the entire evening more bearable.

Karen Brunssen, however, has a beautiful, big, dark, 19th-century contralto voice that is totally out of place doing Mozart. Her trills were almost inaudible, her runs blurred, her pitch often unfocused. The “Domine Deus,” which featured Bedi and Brunssen trading phrase for phrase, was an eloquent comparison of focused and unfocused Mozartean vocal technique. Tenor William Watson was lost in the texture when he sang; bass Myron Myers projected well through the forces but with overdone vibrato.

It’s understandable that Music of the Baroque would want to take advantage of the enormous resurgence in popularity of Mozart sparked by the early-music movement by adding his works to their repertoire (though they’ve included little more than the pieces City Musick has played in the past couple of years). Doing Mozart would be fine if they were capable of doing it in a stylish manner. But I would rather see them stick to the repertoire they have demonstrated an affinity for–Baroque music. If they insist on going beyond that period, then perhaps they should consider using guest conductors.