By many accounts, Mozart the genius was also a showman with a mischievous sense of humor. It is said that sometimes he signed at least part of his name backwards—Trazom Gnagflow—and that his letters were often downright entertaining. His wit and sparkling sense of play infused much of the music he composed in every musical genre of his epoch. At the same time, he was masterful at expressing profound tragedy and sorrow, from the simplest, most delicate melodic lines to overwhelming cascades of heart-wrenching phrases and harmonies.
On Tuesday night, American Classical Orchestra put on a show that would have made both showman Mozart and genius Mozart proud. The three selections on the program, Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major, Symphony No. 29 in A Major, and Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E-Flat Major were born of a Mozart transitioning from the end of this teens to young adulthood… “young” by today’s standards. Let us not forget that he composed his first piece of music at the age of five and, by thirteen, he was already honorary Konzertmeister (Concertmaster) at the Salzburg Court.
My experience at Alice Tully Hall on December 14, aside from being awed by virtuosity and sheer beauty, was one of true showmanship. What made this concert different, compared to some other classical music concerts I’ve attended, was a pervasive sense of fun and playfulness in an overall delivery that often seemed like a dance, seducing the audience as though inviting them to be partners in the music. The invitation to this partnership with the audience was launched by Maestro Thomas Crawford before the concert when he asked the orchestra to play some of the themes and clever structural “moves” that Mozart was about to make on us. This instilled a satisfying sense of insider knowledge that became increasingly audible in the “ahs” and “ohs” of the audience as they recognized the elements that Maestro Crawford had so appealingly explained, and the orchestra effortlessly demonstrated. Before he even conducted a single note, Crawford revealed himself as both showman and star of the show for the entire evening. And his sensitively masterful conducting of the orchestra and soloists illustrated that abundantly.
The first two soloist stars of the show, Emi Ferguson on flute and Parker Ramsay on harp, transported both audience and orchestra into another dimension: the realm of the sublime. Ferguson’s ability to elicit translucent and pearly yet emotion-infused and languishing sounds from the flute was exquisitely complemented by Ramsay’s agile, at times robust, at times suave playing. The flute and harp proved an enthralling combination. Ferguson’s impeccable sense of legato as well as her nimbleness felt both visceral and hypnotic. The visual aspect also played a role here: her entire body swayed as though inhabited by the music even when her flute was silent. There were moments, as she played the flute, when one could no longer distinguish between instrument and human being; she embodied Mozart’s music in perfect collaboration with Ramsay, the orchestra, and Maestro Crawford. In that sense, the Concerto for Flute and Harp was particularly spellbinding.
In Symphony No. 29 the orchestra delivered a nuanced and vibrant performance. All orchestra players deserve a standing ovation for their gorgeous sound and refined collaborative prowess. I must acknowledge the horn players who ended the Menuetto; that was an entertaining moment as Maestro Crawford had joked earlier that it is special when the horn players show up to play. Crawford proved yet again that he was the master showman of the evening by turning to the audience during one of the “insider knowledge” moments and giving us all a thumbs-up. We laughed and burst into applause.
And then came the wonder-eliciting duet of Aisslinn Nosky’s violin and Maureen Murchie’s viola in the Sinfonia Concertante. As a former opera singer, I am always tempted to reflect in operatic terms. The superb dialogue between violin and viola made me think of the duet between Aida (a soprano voice) and Amneris (a mezzo-soprano voice) when the mezzo is attempting to entice the soprano into friendship. True, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida had its premiere almost a century later and Verdi belongs to the Romantic era of music not to the Classical. Besides, there is no structural or thematic similarity between that Italian operatic duet and the virtuosic dialogue between Nosky’s violin and Murchie’s viola, so why even think of it? Still, Mozart also composed operas and had a flair for beautiful and theatrically effective duets between human voices. To me, there was a singing quality to the gleaming, brilliant, soprano-like tones of the violin as to the sensual, earthy, mezzo-like sounds of the viola.
Nosky excelled in both showmanship and skill: she entertained the audience with her expressive body language and movements. They were dance-like, teasing, sharp, subtle, sometimes simply meant to stimulate both audience and players. Even when silent, one perceived that she always encouraged and communicated with her duet partner, with the orchestra, and Crawford. Nosky’s indomitable energy, sense of fun, and attention to detailed collaboration were already palpable from the very start of the concert when she played as concertmaster. But as a soloist this winning combination of qualities conquered the entire hall. Murchie proved a strong partner in their flirty, agile, mournful (in the Andante) exchange of expressions, and the two regaled the audience with breathtaking virtuosity. And with immense joy.
Mozart would have been not only proud but also wholeheartedly entertained. Learn more about American Classical Orchestra and their upcoming schedule.
Featured photo: American Classical Orchestra Maestro Thomas Crawford, Aisslinn Nosky, and Maureen Murchie at Alice Tully Hall on December 14 2021