Mozart, Mahler, Znaider, Grosvenor headline great NSO concert

Last week’s excellent violinist becomes this week’s fine conductor as NSO presents an elegant Mozart piano concerto and a fiery Mahler symphony.

Violinist and Conductor Nikolai Znaider. (Photo credit: Lars Gundersen)

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2016 – Talk about “the Transformers…” Violinist Nikolaj Znaider, last week’s impressive guest soloist in the NSO’s fine presentation of Brahms’ massive Violin Concerto, returned to the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Thursday as Maestro Nikolaj Znaider.

Mr. Znaider conducted the orchestra in a tastefully elegant performance of Mozart’s very last piano concerto—the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, with Benjamin Grosvenor as the featured soloist—and, after the break, returned to conduct an exciting performance of Gustav Mahler’s fiery Symphony No. 1 in D major. The pairing of these very different works proved quite an interesting alpha and omega evening.

Read also:  Măcelaru, Znaider headline eclectic NSO series concert

Mozart composed and performed his final piano concerto in the final year of his unfortunately short life. In this concerto, as in his wonderful 40th and 41st symphonies, he was clearly beginning to depart the Classical era and forge a new path as perhaps the very first master of the Romantic era that followed. But it was not to be.

On the other hand, in forging his First Symphony, after experiencing great difficulty doing so, Mahler was launching the beginning of the end of the late-Romantic era. He was to compose eight more increasingly epic symphonies, many of which included soloists and chorus that gradually approached and occasionally breached the allowable musical language of that era, arguably leading to the next.

Mozart, like Bach before him, largely observed the correct forms, rules and strictures of his era. But he relentlessly stretched those boundaries with increasingly daring harmonies and excursions that telegraphed the end of his era while heralding the next.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 is an excellent case in point. Yes, it’s in a major key, has the standard three movements arrayed in the generally expected fast-slow-fast order. It’s proper on the surface and nods in all the right directions. Yet we also encounter in this concerto many difficult passages for the soloist; numerous achingly beautiful moments that sound very Romantic Era indeed; and any number of novel and daring key shifts that must have baffled (and perhaps irritated on occasion) both royalty and some general audience members as well who preferred to hear the familiar same old, same old when they attended a concert.

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. (Image courtesy of Mr. Grosvenor's web site)
Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. (Image courtesy of Mr. Grosvenor’s web site)

23-year old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor seemed aware of this paradox in his fine performance of this concerto with the NSO Thursday evening.

On the surface, his approach to Mozart’s music was cool, elegant and proper. But upon listening more carefully, Mr. Grosvenor’s performance revealed the subversive, restless Mozart living inside this concerto.

Mr. Grosvenor’s interpretation was all the more effective since he outwardly approached this work in a deceptively businesslike manner. His tone and phrasing were nearly perfect. All this resulted in a performance that was at once quite proper on the surface while expressing the wit and occasional turmoil concealed just beneath.

What we experienced in the end was a delightful and deceptively artful performance from an accomplished young artist whose career, amazingly enough, is only just getting started. Better yet, both Mr. Znaider and NSO’s musicians appeared to be quite taken with Mr. Grosvenor’s artistry, accompanying him in a manner that supported and enhanced his performance.

When the audience returned from the intermission, it was time to encounter something completely different. While it’s one of Gustav Mahler’s shorter symphonies, clocking in at around 50 minutes give or take, the composer’s First Symphony marks his genuinely astonishing symphonic debut. Although Mahler continued to fuss with the details of this work for years, and although decided to cut out one original movement (the “Blumine” movement) — likely for the sake of convention and economy — his first symphony is an innovative break from convention in many ways by a man who, throughout his unfortunately short life, was always better known and respected as a conductor than as a composer.

Even so, his very mastery of conducting must have helped give him the musical and instrumental insights that transformed him into perhaps the greatest master of orchestral color in the history of Western music.

Gustav Mahler, 1892, around the time his Symphony No. 1 was composed. (Public domain, via Wikipedia entry on Gustav Mahler)
Gustav Mahler, 1892, around the time his Symphony No. 1 was composed. (Public domain, via Wikipedia entry on Gustav Mahler)

Subtitled “The Titan,” the First Symphony is more or less a tableaux of the composer’s tumultuous inner artistic and romantic life.

Mahler tended to compose his symphonies with some kind of “program” in mind, programs he tended later to disown. In a way, these “programs” may have served the same function as detailed subject outlines do for a novelist or nonfiction writer, laying out a path, but gradually disappearing in the creative process as the literary or musical work starts to take on a life of its own.

Mahler’s “program” for the First is essentially biographical, following the portrait of the artist as he wanders from the pastoral spring of youth to the stormy summer of a passionate life.

The symphony’s first movement begins in the violins with a tranquil spring-like musical mist that gradually dissipates to become more lively and involved. The following movement is a rollicking folk dance in trio form, with a placid center section providing a resting place before the dance resumes.

The unique third movement is, in effect, a bizarrely inventive funeral march that looks back to Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” (later used by Alfred Hitchcock as his TV theme) and ahead to Kurt Weill’s ironic little march sequences.

The movement begins in a novel fashion as the double bass gets the opening solo, playing a mournful minor-key parody of the old folk tune known in French as “Frère Jacques.”

Other first chair soloists join in from time to time before the woodwind and brass sections crank in with ironic bursts of what initially seems to be what we’d call German “oompah” band music. But it’s not. It’s a series of klezmer band-style riffs, a pretty cheeky gesture back in the 1890s when this symphony was first performed. But it works, creating a grotesque little carnival of mournful sounds.

As the third movement dies away, most conductors—including Mr. Znaider—immediately launch into the violently percussive finale. It’s classic “sturm und drang” music, punctuated by searing, descending dissonances. The storminess surges and then subsides multiple times as the composer quotes earlier moments of the symphony while quietly introducing a heroic theme in the brass. This is reprised twice, finally erupting in the brass section, which resolutely leads the orchestra to the symphony’s triumphant major-key conclusion.

Mahler’s First is a tall order for any conductor or orchestra. But Thursday’s audience was treated to a generally excellent—if occasionally quirky—performance by both the NSO and Maestro Znaider who, most impressively, conducted this substantial, detailed work without a score.

Mr. Znaider had clearly internalized his game plan for both the architecture and emotion inherent in this score, conducting the NSO’s augmented forces with clarity and confidence. We were somewhat perplexed at Mr. Znaider’s occasionally exaggerated slowdowns and accelerandos and thought that a few tempo choices might have been a bit more brisk.

But Mr. Znaider pursued his vision to the end, providing his own interpretative flavor and support, and the NSO musicians seemed happy to go along on this journey, performing at their best after a touch of uncertainty early in the first movement.

Once or twice in the early going, the strings were a bit too faint and the brass was a bit overwhelming, disrupting somewhat the fabric of the music here and there. (Some hearty but inopportune hacking from a few members of the audience didn’t help.)

Nevertheless, taken in its entirety this was ultimately a fine, spirited performance of an impressively challenging work, made all the more memorable the truly fine musicianship of the orchestra’s principals.

Often (though not always), the horns and occasionally other members of the brass section are directed to stand for the full splendor of the final movement’s glorious conclusion. In this performance, Mr. Znaider directed the horns as well as a pair of trombones to do precisely that, adding extra volume and drama at the right time—an triumphal effect that creates even more excitement when the augmented percussion section thunders away with the full orchestra in tow.

Thursday’s audience loved it all — particularly that rip-roaring finale — and gave Mr. Znaider and the entire NSO crew a thunderous ovation.

Mozart and Mahler. What a concept. One more performance of this double bill remains. Details below.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars).

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. (Photo courtesy NSO)
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. (Photo courtesy NSO)

Mozart-Mahler Information and Tickets: Program repeats Saturday evening, April 9 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. Tickets are priced from $15-99. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s page on the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324.


Next Week: Next week’s NSO programs will be something different. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening’s programs will offer a slightly different program each night, focusing on the artistry violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and the eclectic approach of the Kennedy Center’s 21st century American composer-in-residence Mason Bates.

Composer/DJ Mason Bates. (Photo courtesy NSO)
Composer/DJ Mason Bates. (Photo courtesy NSO)
  • For details on the Thursday, April 14 program (Barber, Bates, Ives), click here.
  • For details on the Friday April 15 “Declassified” concert event, click this link.
  • For details on the Saturday’s program (April 16), a reprise of Thursday’s program, try this link.

Thursday and Saturday ticket prices range from $15-89. Tickets for Friday’s all-Mason Bates “Declassified” concert (also featuring Ms. Meyers) are all priced at an astonishing $39 and will include before-and-after festivities.

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