Saturday, July 28, 2007

Mozart at Twenty

For all of my remarks last week about the virtues of revisiting music I had heard earlier this season at Davies, the high point for me at the second Midsummer Mozart Festival was not a second hearing of the "Coronation" mass but a first "live" hearing of the K. 250 "Haffner" serenade. This was probably due, at least in part, with my fascination with the "inner-twenty-year-old" on much of Mozart's music, because it turns out that Mozart was a twenty-year-old when he wrote this particular serenade! While this was "occasional music" for the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy banker, merchant and burgomaster (Sigmund Haffner, whose name also surfaces in the K. 385 symphony), ostensibly a solemn affair with all its trappings of wealth and power, the eight movements of this work all present Mozart the "show-off kid" in the best possible light. There are any number of unpredictable twists and turns of composition that are more often associated with Haydn's ingenuity and wit; and they are matched by utterly splendid use of orchestral resources, made all the more evident by the reduced size of the Midsummer Mozart ensemble.

Then there is the violin. By way of context, we should consider a passage from Dyneley Hussey's Lives of the Great Composers (included in Louis Biancolli's Mozart Handbook) about this period in Mozart's life:

On his return to Salzburg [in 1775], Leopold [his father] set him to work harder than ever at violin-playing. His father (no mean judge) was of the opinion that, if he would do himself justice, he would be 'the first violinist in Europe.' The results of his application are embodied in the five violin concertos, all written at this time. But although he worked at the instrument to please his father, Wolfgang had no great love for it, and turned his attention to the newly invented pianoforte as soon as he cut his apron-strings.

If Mozart, indeed, "had no great love for" the violin, one can hardly tell it from the attention to gives to the solo violin voice in the "Haffner" serenade. As was the case for Laura Griffiths in last week's performance of the K. 251 divertimento, concertmaster Robin Hansen had all the right skills for the double-duty of responsibilities to both the ensemble and her own solo voice. Indeed, given that the concert was dedicated to the memory of Beverly Sills, Hansen's performance of the second movement andante elicited a foretaste of some of Mozart's best writing for the soprano voice.

That foretaste was satisfied after the intermission when Elspeth Franks sang three of those composition, all of which are seldom performed. Two of them were written for the soprano Louise Villeneuve, who wanted them inserted into a performance she gave of Il burbero di buon core, by Martín y Soler; and they both demonstrate how Mozart could bring the sublime to bear in the midst of even the most ridiculous dramatic situation. Franks' voice brought just the right subtlety to this sublimity and fit will in the relatively intimate setting of Herbst Theatre. Then, as an encore, Franks and conductor George Cleve included a performance of "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" from the first act of the Singspiel Zaide (an aria Cleve had conducted for Sills at a performance in San Jose). This was less interesting musically, but the emotional context was what mattered.

Finally, that "intimate setting" through a new light on the "revisited" offering, the "Coronation Mass." Even though Metzmacher had reduced his resources in the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, he was still faced with the problem of providing a sound for the space of Davies. Cleve could achieve a better "fit" with the resources of the Cantabile Chorale and soloists Ruthann Lovetang, Sanford Dole, and David Miller joining Franks. Yes, there is certainly a "grand" sound to this work; but grandeur need not imply massive volume. Also, since most of the solo voices are singing together, there is little attention to "grand arias" here. The result was just the right match of resources to music, bringing this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival to a conclusion that honored the composer's work in the best possible ways.

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