Echoes of Mozart reverberate through eclectic Parlando program of rarities

Thu May 02, 2024 at 3:03 pm
Conductor Ian Niederhoffer. Photo: Rebecca Fay

Parlando brought its season to a close with a Mozart-themed concert Wednesday evening at Merkin Hall. Founder Ian Niederhoffer favors eclectic programs, and he went for broke in this concert. The “Mozart Effect” to be explored was the fascination which the composer and his music exerted over Reynaldo Hahn, Alfred Schnittke, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Three more stylistically disparate composers would be hard to imagine.

Hahn, a French composer of Venezuelan birth, is forever connected with fin-de-siècle Paris and his friendships with the actress Sarah Bernhardt and author Marcel Proust. Although best known for his songs, Hahn was a prolific composer who also wrote comic operas and operettas. One such work was Mozart, a three-act comédie musicale first performed in Paris in 1925, which went on to play in London and New York.

The Overture of this work proved to be music of style, sophistication, and wit, which Niederhoffer conducted with equal panache. The strings enriched Hahn’s charming melodies with sweetness, while the ripples of piano arpeggios brought vitality and complexity to the music. Intended as a curtain-raiser, it was just that on this occasion.

The second work on the program was the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn, which he composed in 1977. Trained in Vienna and Moscow, Schnittke was an iconoclast who managed to survive relatively unscathed within the Soviet Union. He drew upon diverse musical styles in which snippets of the past were pieced together in a collage-like manner, shot through by dissonance.

Moz-Art à la Haydn is based upon some surviving fragments of pantomime music which Mozart composed in 1783. Scored for two solo violinists and small ensemble, Moz-Art à la Haydn also contains quotes from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 (“Farewell”). The piece has been aptly described as giving “an impression of listening to Viennese Classicists as if reflected in a distorting mirror.”

Niederhoffer adhered to the stage instructions which Schnittke provided for the piece by beginning it in darkness. Near the end of the twelve-minute work, the musicians began to leave the stage one by one, until only Niederhoffer was left on stage, beating time in the dark.

In between, Niederhoffer led a terse, taut reading of this challenging work. Violinists Joel Lambkin and Nikita Yermak traded musical jabs that pierced the complex, bleak soundscape in which melodies briefly bloomed and immediately withered. What little levity Schnittke embedded in the piece, conductor and orchestra mined for all its worth.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s short, two-act opera Mozart and Salieri was based upon Alexander Pushkin’s poetic drama of the same name published in 1832, the only Pushkin play that was staged during his lifetime. Pushkin’s play was also the inspiration for Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus and Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of it.

Written in 1830, the opera relates the legend that Antonio Salieri, who was both appalled and fascinated by the young Mozart’s genius, poisoned him out of jealousy. Rimsky-Korsakov intended the role of Mozart to be sung by a tenor and that of Salieri by a baritone. The great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin, who originated the role of Salieri, performed the work as a monodrama. 

Niederhoffer suggested to the audience that Rimsky-Korsakov identified with Salieri, as he likewise took pride in his musical craftsmanship, having been passed over in terms of genius. To bolster the argument, Niederhoffer pointed to the fact that the music which Rimsky-Korsakov wrote for the brash young man to sing sounds like Mozart, while that he composed for Salieri is in the composer’s elegant Russian style.

Tenor Daniel McGrew sang the role of Mozart and bass-baritone Joseph Parrish was Salieri in a witty, light-hearted performance of the opera. They are two of the finest young song stylists around and brought their wonderful voices, immaculate musicianship, and theatrical chops to bear on the endeavor. 

McGrew’s eyes sparkled with mischief as he professed admiration for Salieri’s work in his shining lyric tenor, while Parrish’s voice dripped with envy as he plotted his death by poison. Niederhoffer added his own dollop of melodrama to the performance, conducting with a touch of befitting cheekiness expressed through music alone.

A mixed chorus of ten voices performed a few measures from Mozart’s Requiem, which Rimsky-Korsakov had incorporated into Mozart and Salieri. They reappeared on stage to sing Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, composed just six months before he died at the age of 35 in 1791. Accompanied by the strings of the orchestra, it revealed the genius of Mozart with simplicity, purity, and beauty.

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