Mozartless Mostly Mozart program hits its stride with Yuja Wang

Sat Aug 09, 2014 at 1:57 pm
Yuja Wang performed Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 Friday night at the Mostly Mozart Festival.

Yuja Wang performed Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Friday night at the Mostly Mozart Festival.

The title composer was nowhere to be found on Mostly Mozart’s Friday night concert at Avery Fisher, a light-hearted, ninety-minute offering that presented three works of cheerful wit. Under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra played with elegance, even if intensity was not quite the order of the evening.

Prokofiev’s First, the aptly-monikered “Classical” Symphony, holds a place in the musical canon as a beloved, if not exactly soul-searching, standard. While there is substance to be found in the music, it lacks the emotional punch of Prokofiev’s later work, and can take on the feel of a drawn-out concert overture, as was the case on Friday. The opening Allegro con brio was imbued with charm and grace, played with a full, sunny sound, but did not command attention. The Larghetto, too, seemed to drift, played capably but without a clear sense of direction or purpose.

The brief and adorable Gavotte proved the strongest movement of the four, in a wonderfully winning rendition that captured the music’s easy, dance-like character from the first beat. The Finale was sprightly but exhibited problems that would resurface somewhat later on in the concert. The strings were not quite sharp in their runs, and the whole had an unsettled quality as a result.

The ever-exciting Yuja Wang was the pianist for Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra. Though a world away from the Prokofiev in terms of sonority, this is also a piece with a predominantly gleeful aspect. Written in 1933, this concerto comes from the years of Shostakovich’s youth, before frightening scuffles with Soviet officials had turned his playful wit to bitter sarcasm.

In the early going, it did not seem that this would be a knockout performance. The orchestra’s sound was on the thin side, and while indeed there is a shadowy quality to this music, it should never feel anemic. Wang, by contrast, has a heavy touch that gives her a very imposing sound, but in the first movement also made some of her phrasing sound blocky. For the most part, she got away with it, as Shostakovich’s typically snarling rhythms make this piece more aggressive than delicate.

Philip Cobb, the twenty-six-year-old principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra, was excellent in his part. His gorgeous, searching muted solo in the Lento had the cool, easy flow of an oboe.

Wang was in her stunning element in the finale, coupling complete technical security with feverish, eye-popping intensity. She constantly pushed the tempo, but never so aggressively that Vänskä was unable to follow her. The two soloists had a perfect grasp of the piece’s humor, Wang playfully clobbering her dissonant interjection into Cobb’s tongue-in-cheek “Jenny sits a-weeping” solo.

It is odd to reflect on the position of Beethoven’s Eighth in the progression of his symphonies. A work just on the cusp of the composer’s late period, it sits between the bombastically passionate Seventh and the astounding, radical Ninth. Next to its neighbors, it seems positively laid back.

Vänskä had no trouble finding the graceful ease of the piece, though his lively tempo for the first movement contributed to a disorganized opening. Otherwise, the pace served him well, giving the music brightness and crispness, with enough space to let its noble character breathe.

The scherzo was irresistibly charming, a casual and elegant stroll that showed of the orchestra’s ability to produce a clear, ringing sound. They gave a stately rendition of the menuet, coupling playfulness with serenity, though the balancing was not always precise. The reduced string section of MMF’s Classical-sized orchestra was often overpowered by the winds. The boisterous finale, though, was perfectly molded, as Vänskä drew bustling energy out of the orchesra and shaped the lyrical slow section of the development with supreme care.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall.

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