I really do try to keep a respectful objectivity toward Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I know full well the dangers of lurking superlatives like “genius” and “brilliant” in describing performances of his works. Without restraint, one may be left at the edge of a verbal cliff, grasping for Mozartian adjectives with nowhere else to go. To be sure, the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 271, is brilliant, but it is also a youthful work, full of the questioning and impatience of the 21-year old who was a veteran of performance since childhood, but eager to move on and impress as an adult. Pianist David Northington joined Maestro Lucas Richman and the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra on Sunday for a performance of that concerto on a program that also included Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 16 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major.
I readily admit that I was more than a little put off a bit by Northington’s decision to use a score as reference during the performance of the concerto. There are several reasons for this. Foremost, it’s unusual for a soloist to not have a work solidly in memory so that the audience can hear and sense the performance flowing from the soloist’s emotional base rather than from paper. In addition, a soloist’s body language can be almost as communicative as the piano sound, so it can be quite distracting, even unconsciously worrying, to watch a soloist flip pages.
Having said this, it probably was remarkable, then, that Northington was able to offer up a performance that still had an amazing amount of emotional force and depth, as well as the expected technical precision. This really was an entertaining performance with spirited and lively orchestral intent. But, in the grand scheme of the concerto, I felt I was missing those subtle Mozartian poetic opportunities from the piano (particularly in the second Andantino movement) that separate a noted performance from a truly brilliant one.
Both the Haydn and Beethoven symphonies were reprises of earlier performances from the KSO Masterworks concerts, but with the smaller chamber orchestra-size forces. And, I’m delighted to say, both benefited enormously from the acoustic environment, but particularly the Haydn. Richman gave its opening (Allegro) movement—with its simple but incredibly addictive little theme—an energetic and spirited tempo that carried the listener right along. This isn’t a symphony full of the entertaining surprises that pop up in later Haydn. But what was surprising was the unexpected wealth of instrumental passages that jump right out from the smaller ensemble in the clear acoustics of the Bijou Theatre.
The Beethoven Fourth Symphony, which concluded the concert, worked just as well with the smaller complement of strings of the Chamber Orchestra. Richman was able to reveal the work’s rich variety of woodwind colors—and their subtleties—while still maintaining that expected orchestral balance. With those forces, and in that environment, Beethoven’s crescendos seemed more powerful, pianissimo softness seemed more delicate, and solo passages drifted clearly out over it all.
This was particularly evident in the second (Adagio) movement with its overall serenity punctuated by sudden moments of conflict and drama. A bassoon passage or a gorgeous flute passage poke out from the rhythmic strings, revealing those little musical statements that together make this underrated symphony so rewarding.
The fourth movement (Allegro ma non troppo) reveals Beethoven’s attachment to Haydn in its little thematic surprises amid the constantly hurrying, energized strings and good-natured dynamic outbursts from timpani and brass. It seems as though no tempo could be too fast here, limited only by the fear of a violin bursting into flames. And no crescendo could be too dynamic, as long as those wonderful woodwind statements can float above the fray. And they did.
At first, I questioned the wisdom of repeating pieces from the Masterworks concerts on the Chamber Orchestra programs. However, count me now as a big supporter of this concept. Obviously, instrumentation requirements dictate which works will lend themselves to this practice. But I can state without hesitation that the difference in forces and the difference in performance environments make for a really entertaining opportunity to compare and contrast.