Friday, May 30, 2008

Soloist and Orchestra

Last night, at a performance of two of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's concertos for piano and orchestra (written within a year of each other and with consecutive sequence numbers), I found myself thinking once again about my "inner twenty-year old" perspective of Mozart. I wrote about this perspective earlier this week with regard to his K. 330 piano sonata, which displays his capacity for "showing off all the things he can do just because he can do them;" but, where these concertos are concerned, Mozart is showing off far more than his keyboard virtuosity. As I wrote about two months ago, Mozart is just as interested in dazzling his listener with the give-and-take between piano and orchestra as he is with the solo passages. Thus, the orchestra is not there just to provide a conducive background for the soloist but to serve as an "active agent," whose actions provide even more opportunities for the soloist to strut his stuff, so to speak.

This brings us to why I had a problem with last night's performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music: If the orchestra does not do its part as that "active agent," then the soloist cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of making the performance "work." Last night's concert seems to have been conceived without what we might call "adult supervision." Accompaniment was provided by the "Oak Street Chamber Orchestra," rather than the "official" Conservatory Orchestra; and the conductor was a graduate student, as were the two piano soloists for the concertos being performed (K. 488 followed by K. 482). Unfortunately, while this event was probably conceived with the best intentions in the world, none of that give-and-take was there to enhance the solo work, however well prepared the soloists may have been. There were major problems of acoustic balance, not only between solo and orchestra but also within the orchestra itself; and, possibly because of those problems, there was hardly any eye contact between conductor and soloist. We thus had all of the solo virtuosity but none of the "magic" through which Mozart escalated these concertos to something more than virtuosic preening.

This left me realizing just how spoiled San Francisco audiences are where Mozart is concerned. Not only the San Francisco Symphony but also the orchestra for the Midsummer Mozart Festival are so well-versed in orchestra-soloist relations that they tend to make it seem like the easiest thing in the world (which may be one reason why I keep accusing the San Francisco Chronicle of not "giving Mozart his due"). Well, it's not that easy; and it almost approaches the level of "chamber music for a very large chamber" (the complement of the Brahms C minor piano quartet, which I have described as a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra"). Nevertheless, one studies in order to learn; so the best I can hope for is that there was a serious "lessons-learned" session after last night's performances.

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