Guest Conductor Edward Cumming Leads KSO Through a Night of Mozart

With over 400 years of music in our western repertoire, modern concerts devoted to just one composer often run the risk of appearing overly focused, fussy, and academic, even for listeners with more than a casual interest. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, however, made a case last weekend that the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be a remarkable exception, especially when coupled with a delightfully fresh point of view from a conductor willing to draw both the orchestra and the audience into a different world.

Making a guest appearance with the KSO was conductor Edward Cumming, who completed a ninth and final season as music director of the Hartford (Connecticut) Symphony Orchestra last June and is now director of orchestral activities for the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. What Cumming brought to the concert of three Mozart works was two-fold: a refreshingly wry sense of humor, and an apparent understanding that one must peel away Mozart like layers of an onion, passing through the mechanisms of inventive structure and subtle melody on the way to the beauty hidden behind the notes.

The opening Mozart work, the Symphony No. 23 in D Major (K. 181), was drawn from the composer’s teenage years, just after his return to Salzburg from his final trip to Italy for the performances of his opera in the Italian style, Lucio Silla. Clearly, the work has more in common with an Italian opera overture than it does with the mature symphonic form of Mozart’s final three symphonies. Nevertheless, Cumming never allowed the lack of complexity to become pedestrian or mechanical, drawing as much Italianate charm from the work as possible. The simple melody of the extended oboe solo in the second movement was beautifully played by principal Phylis Secrist.

The centerpiece of the evening came as the young Korean pianist Yeol eum Son joined Cumming and the orchestra for an attention-grabbing performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major (K. 467). Frankly, I was stunned to learn that this was only the third performance occasion of the concerto by the KSO, given the mass-market familiarity created by the hauntingly evocative theme from the Andante movement that was the musical signature for the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. However, in this concerto, as in most of mature Mozart, familiarity breeds not contempt, but a justified and ever-increasing admiration.

The 25-year old Son is a pianist who deserves admiration as well. Her silver medal from the 2009 Van Cliburn Piano Competition and a recent second place at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition have firmly established her credentials not only as a consummate virtuosic technician, but also one driven by emotion. Yet she also possesses the uncanny ability to transform complex, intricate passages into simple, uncomplicated elegance. While the Andante was radiant and satisfying, the finale movement’s contrasting themes, sudden tempo changes, and the piano/orchestra banter launched by humorous interchanges between the woodwinds, was blatantly and unabashedly exciting.

The denouement of the evening, both literally and figuratively, was the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (K. 550), the next to last in the trilogy of Mozart’s final symphonies. Cumming’s approach here, driven by the G minor’s inherent drama, contrasted nicely with the concerto. Nevertheless, his approach to the symphony, as it was throughout the evening, was not the tempo trap of rigid, accelerated, or even overromanticized ones. Instead, Cumming’s fresh take seemed to flow from carefully massaged dynamics between instrumental sections—dynamic contours and fluidity that did for Mozart what subtle tone colors would do for late 19th- and early 20th-century composers.

With KSO music director Lucas Richman off on a number of other conducting assignments around the world this January, the orchestra management chose well in lining up Cumming. Ebullient audiences aside, Cumming apparently earned the admiration of a group even harder to impress—the musicians themselves.

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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