At the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Coffee Concert on Friday, the music went down as easily as the doughnuts.
This pair of concerts is the BPO’s annual Mozart birthday celebration. It features two luminous Mozart masterpieces, the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, and the Symphony No. 39. In between were a few lighter things: overtures by Haydn and Antonio Salieri, and Mozart’s early Symphony No. 5. On the podium is the BPO’s associate conductor, Stefan Sanders. And the two soloists for the Sinfonia Concertante are Dennis Kim, the orchestra’s new concertmaster, and Principal Violist Valerie Heywood.
It’s customary these days to play Mozart with a chamber-sized orchestra, and the BPO was pared back somewhat for the occasion. Sanders conducts without a baton, and he elicits a crisp, cool sound from the musicians just by shaping his hands. The Salieri and the Haydn, were brief and blew away like bubbles.
The Salieri was interesting because it puts Mozart – and Haydn, too – into historic context. Salieri was one of the most successful composers of his day. And he was good. His overture was pleasant. It flowed well. But then the Haydn, that followed, had something that the Salieri did not. And moving from there to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, you find yourself wondering: What could Mozart’s contemporaries have been thinking? They must have thought he was from another planet.
Heywood and Kim, taking the stage for the Sinfonia Concertante, were a study in contrasts.
Violinists are more used to the spotlight than violists are, and Kim was the showman of the two. It was cute how he played pizzicato along with the violin section during the opening tutti. He was raring to go. He has a fluid, mellow sound and you would sense his enjoyment in this sensuous music.
Heywood, beautiful in a stunning blue gown, is a more reluctant star. For all her elegance and musicianship, she looks humble – eyes cast down, frequently bending forward to adjust the score. Her playing tells a different story. She should hold her head high and embrace the limelight.
The dynamic between the two soloists, and their instruments, could make you notice their interaction in the piece. Often the viola echoes or answers the violin. But frequently it is the viola that leads. The instruments projected well enough for the most part – a challenge in this piece. In the sublime Andante, you could hear the sweet dissonances, and in the last movement, the madcap triplets were a delight. The soloists were particularly admirable in their cadenzas, which sounded free but were in remarkable synch.
The orchestra was on the mark too throughout the piece. The horns were particularly prominent.
Could it all have used more pizzazz? I wondered that again in the Symphony No. 39.
It’s a challenge with Mozart, maybe because you have a reduced orchestra in this big hall, to create a sense of energy, and to keep it. The 39th Symphony called for some musicians the previous pieces had not demanded. The timpani boomed out for the first time. The clarinet added its own beauty. But I kept wishing the music had more weight. Sanders should slow down the introduction. You have to feel that depth, that dissonance. The Andante, while lovely, could have been more passionate. It was too airy – like one of those doughnuts, come to think of it.
Also, it wouldn’t be the Mozart’s birthday concert without me harping that the orchestra should take Mozart’s repeats. It should be illegal to skip them in this symphony, which is so magnificent but so brief. What would it have added, 10 minutes? If time is a factor, cut out the Symphony No. 5. It was nice enough, but we didn’t need it.
The concert repeats at Kleinhans Music Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday.