Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky: Melanie Kreuger (soprano), Marion Newman (mezzo-soprano), Colin Ainsworth, Michael Colvin (tenors), Steven Hegedus, James Westman (baritones), UBC Opera Ensemble, VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum,  April 10-19, 2015

After all the ‘Mostly Mozart’ and ‘Mainly Mozart’ festivals that have been come and gone over the years, the Vancouver Symphony now comes up with their own Mozart-Plus festival, a four-concert series that combines works by Mozart with those by later composers that pay homage to the master.  While featuring Mozart’s last three symphonies and the Requiem as core works, some pieces did take us off the beaten track in an intriguing way.  When did we last see Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 or Rimsky-Korsakov’s one act opera, Mozart and Salieri, in the concert hall?  Another programming influence was likely the celebrated movie “Amadeus” that was screened at the opening.  The movie might have served as prelude to some version of an ‘authentic’ Mozart experience but I would be stretched to say that there was anything historically informed about the performances, and for all the focus on of the piano in the film, there were no piano concertos represented either.  Perhaps this is just as well: as British film director Phil Grabsky (“In Search of Mozart’) has suggested, “Amadeus” may largely be an exercise in hyperbole, not realism. 

I was able to sample the opening and closing nights and, interestingly, I was at least as inspired by the works that were not by Mozart.  The opera Mozart and Salieri was written by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897, based on the Pushkin text, and was actually given its premiere with the legendary bass Feodor Chalipan.  It plays on one of the many (fictitious) reasons for Mozart’s early death: namely, that he was poisoned by his arch-rival.  The music quotes liberally from Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and the Requiem, as well as adding ample original music.  Here an economical ‘set’ with two chairs and not much more was employed on the front left of the stage, the full orchestra shifted to the back right.  Baritone James Westman’s portrayal of a somewhat severe and plotting Salieri and tenor Michael Colvin’s rendering of a buoyant, friendly, and often innocent Mozart were very fine indeed and made for a touching experience, not least when the young Mozart first premieres his ‘new’ piece on the piano and when fragments from the Requiem softly enter towards the end. 

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Mozartiana’ Suite was also refreshing, and played with enthusiasm.  Bramwell Tovey gave the opening Gigue an inviting animation and contrast, and the following Minuet and Preghiera had just the right type of Mozartian elegance and flow.  The latter registers the debt to Liszt’s piano transcription of Ave verum corpus, K. 618.  The extended Theme and Variations also went in invigorating style, capturing much wit and play, and building to an authoritative ending.  Both the violin and clarinet solos were persuasive and appropriately colouful.

The better-known Mozart works received creditable performances in the hands of Maestro Tovey but did not resonate as much with me.  The Symphony No. 39 received conscientious treatment, but one that tended more to the robust than lithe and elegant.  After an opening that was certainly faster than the marked Adagio, the main Allegro moved alertly with convincing grace and poise.  However, I found the following movement somewhat short-winded, needing more expanse and fluidity of phrase, while the ‘chugging’ rhythms of the Minuet required more firmness and precision.  The finale had plenty of energy, but perhaps tended to brusqueness more than buoyancy.  With the strongly exposed horns and trumpets, this felt a bit like the rustic Haydn.

 The dark, exotic wind colourings of the Masonic Funeral Music can hardly help but be engaging, and so it proved here.   The dark hues, mystery and power in Mozart’s Requiem have always had a remarkable spiritual effect too, unfolding with a special luminosity as the work balances the intimate and sublime with the dramatic.  As the last work in the festival, Maestro Tovey evidently had to make a decision about what sort of interpretation was appropriate.  He chose a more triumphal one, full of both Verdian passion and Handellian splendour, pushing forward many sections with noticeable urgency but not fostering very much quiet repose.  The audience clearly enjoyed all the highly-projected fervour, but I have doubts that the singers could always keep up.  The choir was certainly enthusiastic enough, but its blend was sometimes uneven, and the soloists seemingly had some difficulty in settling into their own expressive line.  Personally, it is the intimacy, mystery and quiet deliberation in this great work that I hold most dear.

There were some good things here -- and works we almost never hear -- and this festival seemed to embody a rewarding concept design.  However, I do think there should be one or more concertos interspersed between the orchestral works.  I also admit that I have been waiting a long time to hear a work that could have easily been performed: Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015