A bland start and sensational finish to Gardner concert at Mostly Mozart

Sat Aug 08, 2015 at 1:18 pm
Edward Gardner conducted the Mostly Mozart Orchestra Friday night. Photo:  Benjamin Ealovega

Edward Gardner conducted the Mostly Mozart Orchestra Friday night. Photo:
Benjamin Ealovega

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra is the sort of ensemble whose fortunes are tied largely to those of the person leading it on any given night. Composed of musicians who spend the regular season in orchestras the world over, it can sometimes lack the cohesion of the top ensembles, but they are capable of truly excellent performances given the right conductor. For the first half of Friday’s program at Avery Fisher Hall, it seemed, Edward Gardner was not that conductor.

In the overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz the orchestra was wobbly, and their tone was dry. Gardner’s telegraphic style of conducting seemed to communicate little to the players, leading to a stagnant reading of the piece.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 suffered similar problems; there were some very fine solos from the wind players, but in the larger scale, Gardner seemed aware of the contours of the piece only in the most general sense, giving little definition to the music. The soloist, Steven Osborne, certainly did his part, crafting subtle, breathing lines and teasing out the intricacies of the piano’s various voices with color and touch.

In the Larghetto, much of which gives the piano only one voice at a time and features little ornamentation, Osborne made his case with phrasing alone. In the closing Allegro his playing was spirited and witty, even baring a little tooth by the end. Yet for all the fierceness of Gardner’s gestures, the accompaniment was dreary, deadening the dialogue that is so essential to Mozart’s great piano concertos.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that was nothing less than exceptional. The famous opening chords were more crisp than often heard, giving them emphatic punch. Gardner showed no qualms about taking liberties with his tempo until he got to the first movement’s main theme, which had a heroic, high-flying energy to go along with a suddenly robust sound from the orchestra. The conductor seemed here to have found precisely what was lacking in the first half of the program: a strong and specific reading, with precise intention.

The Allegretto was taut, establishing the rhythmic motif strongly at the outset through firm articulation, and hewing faithfully throughout to the initial tempo. Right until the closing gesture, Gardner stole virtually no time at all, and yet the music felt anything but metronomic. Rather, the constant, unchanging pulse gave the whole movement a feeling of inexorable forward progress.

The winds giggled brightly in the boisterous romp of a Scherzo, but there was also an unmistakable confidence in the musicians’ approach that allowed the piece to spin along with abandon but never feel as though it might get out of hand. The sense of motion was sustained even through the often ponderous trio. Gardiner oversold the false ending a little bit, but given the conviction of the rest of his interpretation, that seems a minor complaint.

Because of the inherent electricity that Beethoven wrote into the finale, it’s often hard to say that one performance of it is more exciting than another. But given the singular ferocity with which it was performed and the tension that had been building steadily in the preceding three movements, this may well have been the most thrilling rendition of the Seventh I have ever heard. There was an unfamiliar but entirely effective coyness about the humor in this movement, providing an intriguing contrast to the sharp, biting character of the players’ articulation. In the closing bars Gardner kept a firm hand on the rein, rather than opting to go completely off the rails as so many conductors do. But that did not deaden the effect, and the conclusion exploded with energy, and so, unsurprisingly, did the audience.

Friday’s program will be repeated Saturday at 7:30 PM in Avery Fisher Hall. mostlymozart.org

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