Classical review: For Mozart’s birthday, cake and concertos

mozartxAn overflow crowd swarmed into Edgehill United Methodist Church on Saturday night, and that could only mean one thing: It was time once again for the church’s ever-popular annual Mozart Birthday Festival concert.

Nashville multi-instrumentalist Roger Wiesmeyer founded this festival a dozen years ago to indulge his dual passions – a love for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (born in Salzburg, Austria exactly 257 years ago today, on Jan. 27, 1756); and a devotion to charity work. Saturday’s concert raised funds for both Edgehill Church and the Nashville Philharmonic. Both organizations must have been thrilled to see the church packed to standing-room-only capacity.

rogerxWiesmeyer likes to do things at his festival a little differently every year. Saturday night was an evening of firsts. Best known in Music City as the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s long-time principal English horn player, Wiesmeyer decided to devote his energies on Saturday exclusively to the piano. He soloed for the first time in his career in a piano concerto, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453 with conductor Joseph Lee and the Mozart Birthday Festival Orchestra.

It was also Wiesmeyer’s first performance done entirely from memory – a longstanding tradition among piano soloists but a novelty for the veteran English horn virtuoso. This year’s festival concert was also streamed live for the first time on the website

Wiesmeyer describes himself as a musician’s pianist, not a pianist’s pianist. Put another way, he’s more of a poet than a dazzler. That seemed true enough on Saturday. His performance of the concerto was thoughtful, serious and stylish. It was never showy.

He was at his best when the music was most mellifluous. As an English horn player, Wiesmeyer has learned how to milk a long lyrical line for all it’s worth, and on Saturday he carried that skill over to the piano. Wiesmeyer’s experience as a chamber musician was also evident. He was a real collaborative artist whose playing dovetailed beautifully with the orchestra.

Wiesmeyer’s biggest challenges came in the virtuoso sections of the first movement. He seemed to have trouble projecting rapid passagework over the orchestra – though I suspect this may have been more of a defect in the church’s piano than Wiesmeyer’s technique. Likewise, Wiesmeyer’s nerves, rather than his chops, were probably responsible for some of the untidiness in the first-movement cadenza.

rogerBut these small deficiencies were all quickly forgotten the moment Wiesmeyer and the orchestra launched into the second movement. This is one of Mozart’s most deeply felt Andantes. It opens with a beautiful and transparent major mode melody that quickly grows dark and anxious. Musicologist Maynard Solomon would call this “trouble-in-paradise” music. Wiesmeyer played this movement with immediacy and expressive intensity. His choice of cadenza (by Johannes Brahms) fit nicely into the intensely chromatic texture of the music.

Lee, the music director of the Murfreesboro Philharmonic, proved to be an able accompanist. For much of the performance, he led the Mozart Festival Orchestra with chamber-like intimacy. His reading of the finale had sweep and, in the coda, operatic joy and energy.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major was given its premiere on June 13, 1784, with Mozart’s student Barbara Ployer at the keyboard. After the performance, Ployer joined Mozart to play one of his four-hand piano sonatas. Appropriately enough, Wiesmeyer followed his concerto performance with a rendition of Mozart’s Sonata in F major for Piano Four Hands, K. 497. He was joined by pianist Francoise Pierredon.

This is a large-scale, weighty work filled to the brim with difficult ensemble passages. Wiesmeyer and Pierredon brought a welcome degree of drama to this music. Banished for the duration of their performance was the image of Mozart as the composer of delicate music box sonatas. Wiesmeyer and Pierredon did not tinkle and charm. Nor did they limit themselves to milquetoast mezzo-fortes. They played this sonata the way Mozart intended – with a healthy mix of lyricism and fire. One suspects Mozart would have appreciated the gesture, almost as much as the kids at Saturday’s concert enjoyed the complimentary birthday cake.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.