MCO: Mozart and the Classical Age

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Published: 29th June, 2018

On the shortest day of the year, there was no pleasant evening view over the Yarra from Deakin Edge at Federation Square, but it looked and felt warm inside, with a red glow of lighting playing on the steel struts encasing the glass surrounds, and some effective heating. I was here to listen to the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra for the first time in many years, in one of their two Melbourne performances of the Classical Age program they are also touring through regional Victoria with pianist Anna Goldsworthy. It was also an opportunity for the audience to warmly acknowledge Musical Director William Hennessy AM, his award having been made in the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours.

The programmed works of Kraus, Haydn and Mozart were all composed in the period 1773 – 1791, and were highly accessible, full of everything we have come to expect in a “classical” concert, even though some of the works were not so familiar.

Joseph Kraus (1756-1792), a German composer who moved to Sweden in 1777, became known as “the Swedish Mozart”, and Haydn knew and appreciated his work for its “great style”. MCO opened the concert with Kraus’ Overture VB29 to Olympie. This was the first of seven movements of incidental music for a production of Voltaire’s play, and the small band of strings was joined by two horns and two oboes for this short and classically dramatic overture in which nothing was overstated.

The string orchestra remained standing on stage for an arrangement of Mozart’s String Quartet No 7 in E flat major K160/159a. This beautiful quartet arrangement was elegantly played, although particularly in the slow movement, the balance seemed not quite right. With four first violins, including William Hennessy whose leadership from the violin is quite powerful, three seconds, two violas, two cellos and a bass, the inner voices were not as effective as in the equal voices of a string quartet with one person per part.

The oboes and horns returned to join the strings on stage, the grand piano was placed in the centre with i-pad on the music stand, and pianist Anna Goldsworthy emerged to perform Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No 11 in D major Hob XVIII/II. This joyful work brought out the best in all the players, with an overwhelming sense of real ensemble – making music together and expressing it in their faces, bodies and playing. Goldsworthy was completely engaged in the music from the opening, and when the piano’s turn came to play, the sparkling clarity of her playing, the evenness of her scale passages, the superb and elegant articulations exemplified the nature of classical music. It is truly remarkable just how much expressiveness can ensue from such restraint.

A special mention should be made of Goldsworthy’s cadenzas, which were playfully improvisatory, and always in character. In the style of the period, she has invented her own, and they felt spontaneously appropriate.

After interval, all forces reassembled for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 6 in B flat major K238. Here was further opportunity to relish in the music-making from all parties. Goldsworthy was a generous soloist, and continued to delight with her intelligent, sometimes playful, always musical playing. She was clearly an audience favourite, and the warmth of applause for her personally was apparent. A very young fan presented her with flowers, and Goldsworthy good-naturedly posed for her photo to be taken with the child and the bouquet.

Closing the concert was Mozart’s Symphony No 30 in D major K202/186b a work rarely heard. William Hennessy took a moment to introduce this to the audience, recounting that they have also been performing this work in their Encounter the Orchestra program, offering live orchestral music to primary school children across the state. The children had been taught a little song to match the first subject of the first movement. Hennessy got the orchestra to play this phrase, and then to sing it with the words the children had been taught. “Symphony, symphony -this one’s by Mozart.” The audience then had a turn, and did it rather well. When the orchestra came to perform it, a woman seated close to me joined in that phrase as they played. When the subject returned at the recapitulation later in the movement, she joined in again! It works – I won’t forget Symphony 30’s main theme. With four well-balanced movements, this was a charming work full of contrasts. The fourth and final movement has a surprisingly delicate conclusion.

Mozart can thrill and delight through his shapely melodies, his balanced phrases where the cadences fall regularly and we know when to snatch a breath and be ready to hear more, and when to breathe as if we’ve reached a colon or full stop. We can appreciate the tension of occasional more chromatic harmony resolving to our satisfaction, and ponder the battle between major and minor tonalities. It happens with clarity and simplicity, and an orchestra of only sixteen players, and it doesn’t take all night. But we leave feeling calmer and richer for the experience.

Deakin Edge was nearly full for this concert, and the audience loved it. While it is wonderful that Melbourne’s musical offerings are so diverse, it is also reassuring to know we can hear some beautifully performed music from the classical period, played by our local musicians, most of them very youthful.