Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Mozart Conductor

On Saturday night, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister to Saint Paul for a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Hans Graf led the ensemble in a program centered upon the music of Mozart.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 was the Mozart work on the first half of the program. Guest soloist was pianist Jeffrey Kahane.

I have never understood why Kahane has been able to sustain a career, minor though it is. As a pianist, he has nothing to offer beyond garden-variety keyboard skills and journeyman musicianship. I am amazed he gets engagements.

On Saturday night, Kahane’s Mozart was terminally dull. I don’t know how Graf, an accomplished Mozart conductor, managed to get through the performance without grimacing.

Kahane brought no style and no personality to the Mozart, and he brought no depth of musicianship. Kahane simply played the notes—and not especially cleanly—while countless opportunities for rhythmic and harmonic exploration passed him by. Kahane’s performance was no better than a student performance.

Exactly one week earlier, we had heard Yevgeny Sudbin play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with the Minnesota Orchestra. Sudbin’s Mozart had been unsuccessful, too, but at least Sudbin’s performance had been the work of an artist in possession of a sparkling technique and a genuine keyboard touch. Moreover, Sudbin had displayed, in fleeting moments, a mind willing to seek out the content of one of Mozart’s most miraculous works. Where Sudbin had been frustrating and unsatisfactory, Kahane was . . . a blank, an artist with nothing to bring to the table.

After intermission, the orchestra played Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Within minutes, memories of the lackluster Kahane were banished.

The performance was excellent, admirable in every way. It was one of the finest performances of a Mozart symphony I have ever heard.

Graf did nothing unusual. He did not adopt odd tempi or ever-changing tempi. He did not play around with inner voices. He did not endeavor to layer Romantic expression onto a Classical work. He did not attempt to import fury and bite from the original-instrument movement.

And yet the performance was bracing, even startling. The entire performance, I kept asking myself, in wonder, “Why is this performance so good?”

The answer, I believe, lies in one simple fact: Graf is a Mozart conductor. Graf has been conducting Mozart his entire life, and he understands Mozart’s Classical poise and he understands the ever-shifting emotional undercurrents that flow beneath Mozart’s immaculate surface.

Graf may be the finest living Mozart conductor, the Josef Krips or Karl Böhm of our age. I can think of no other living person that conducts Mozart at so high a level. I would earnestly like to hear Graf in the Mozart operas.

I last heard Graf more than five years ago, when he led the Houston Symphony in its home hall. I heard a program (Dukas-Debussy-Dvorak) probably not ideal for Graf, and I was unsure what to make of him that evening.

I am still unsure what to make of Graf, but he clearly is an exceptional Mozart conductor.

Graf will end his tenure in Houston at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season. Graf’s years in Houston have not attracted much attention outside the state of Texas. It is possible that Graf has never received his due in the United States.

Graf is one of three Austrians currently in charge of major American orchestras. As a Classicist, Graf is superior to the other two, Pittsburgh’s Manfred Honeck and Cleveland’s Franz Welser-Möst. Whether Graf’s strengths are as strong in Romantic repertory or colorful nationalistic repertory or 20th-Century repertory, I do not know.

Saturday night’s concert began with a performance of Edgar Varèse’s “Octandre”, a seven-minute neo-Stravinsky work for eight instruments written in 1923.

The second half of the concert began with a performance of Varèse’s four-minute composition for solo flute, “Density 21.5”, written in 1936.

Lip service to what once passed for modernism was paid.

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