Arts & Events

New Century Chamber Orchestra Gives A Mozart’s Birthday Bash

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday January 26, 2018 - 05:18:00 PM

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria. In celebration of the 262nd anniversary of Mozart’s birth, the New Century Chamber Orchestra offered to Bay Area audiences a series of concerts featuring Mozart’s music. I attended the opening concert of this series on Thursday evening, January 25, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. Opening the program was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, featuring German pianist Sebastian Knauer as soloist. The orchestra was led by British violinist Daniel Hope, who serves as the group’s Artistic Partner for the 2017-18 season.  

While working on the score for his opera Le Nozze di Figaro in 1785-6, Mozart composed three piano concertos, of which the A Major concerto is the second. As Alfred Einstein notes, “The key of A Major is for Mozart the key of many colors. It has the transparency of a stained-glass window.” Indeed, there are many colors in the opening movement of Mozart’s A Major concerto. However, not all of them are transparent. Some lurk just beneath the surface, suggesting darker shadings and hidden intensities. There is even a threatening touch of F-sharp minor, and the whole second movement, an Adagio, is in that key otherwise seldom used by Mozart. Pianist Sebastian Knauer performed Mozart’s first movement cadenza with superb artistry. He also brought out the brooding, pessimism and melancholy of the Adagio with great expressivity. The fourth and final movement offers an extended sonata-rondo in which themes alternate and return with ever more complex variations. For the pianist, the heart of this work is in the opening movement and its cadenza, as well as in the second movement marked Adagio. Then the work is capped by the giddy finale, which also requires great dexterity from the soloist, amply provided here by Sebastian Knauer.  

Next on the program was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216. The third of Mozart’s five violin concertos, all of which were written in the composer’s teen years while he served as concertmaster in Salzburg for Archbishop Coloredo’s orchestra, breaks wondrous new ground. Here Mozart went far beyond the Italian models he used in his first two violin concertos. Here he began to develop what came to be called the classical style. The orchestra enters into a wholly new and far richer interaction with the solo violin than in any earlier violin concerto by Mozart or the Italians. Our soloist was Daniel Horn, who also conducted in such a way as to emphasize this intimate interaction between orchestra and soloist.  

The opening movement is based on an aria Mozart had written for his early opera Il Re pastore. It is a lyrical evocation of quiet breezes and serene days. In the second movement, marked Adagio, which Alfred Einstein described as “fallen straight from heaven,” flutes take the place of oboes. In the concluding Rondo, all sorts of musical quotations occur, some from French, others from Italian music. One folk-like tune is said by Mozart to be from Strasburg. The ending of this concerto comes, surprisingly, in a soft passage in the winds, bringing this spirited and perhaps spiritual work to a quiet close. 

After intermission the New Century Chamber Orchestra returned to perform Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201. This symphony, one of my favorites, is considered the culmination and highlight of Mozart’s Salzburg symphonies. The opening movement begins with an octave leap played softly, a most unusual and quite striking way to begin a symphony. This octave leap then becomes the basis of the entire movement, including its expanded coda. The second movement, marked Andante, offers muted violins that add poignancy to the yearning mood of this music. The third movement, a Menuetto, offers French-style music that contains a rhythmic vehemence that surprises the listener. The finale features repeated upward thrusts in the strings, echoing the octave thrust of the opening movement. This is a spirited, almost demonic, movement that rushes along in six-eight time. Thus it brings this work to a driven, precipitous climax ending on two energetic chords. As led by concertmaster Daniel Horn, this Symphony No. 29 by Mozart was, for me, the highlight of a very fine concert.