March 30, 2022

PU Concerts Brings International Pianist and Orchestra to Richardson

By Nancy Plum

Music has always been considered a “universal” language, traversing worldwide cultures and geography. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has taken this concept to a new level by creating an international ensemble of 45 instrumentalists from 20 countries to share exceptional experiences in classical music, and the world-renowned ensemble brought one of these experiences to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night as part of Princeton University Concerts. Led by guest pianist and Mozart expert Mitsuko Uchida, the Mahler Orchestra drew a full house to Richardson for a program of piano and orchestral music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Henry Purcell.  

Conducting piano concerti from the keyboard is a musical return to how it used to be done; Mozart composed many of his concerti for his own performance, both playing and leading an ensemble. In Thursday night’s performance, Uchida’s rapport with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was immediate, with her conducting gestures from the keyboard always conveying an uplifting spirit and joy. Uchida is especially well known for her interpretation of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven; having been raised in Vienna, she gave her first recital at the age of 14 and has channeled the Viennese powerhouse composers ever since.  

Uchida and the Mahler Orchestra began the concert with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, a work composed at the same time as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. This concerto contained much of the same elegant flavor and melodic sensitivity as Figaro, opening with a courtly orchestral introduction. Mozart replaced the customary oboes with clarinets in this work to create a darker color, but under Uchida’s guidance, the Orchestra generated its own musical charm while playing with a rich instrumental sound. 

The overriding strength of the combination of Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was the impeccable timings between the two artistic partners. As both conductor and soloist, Uchida was responsible for seamlessly weaving the solo keyboard part into the orchestral fabric. While she was expertly playing the solo lines, concertmaster Mark Steinberg fluidly took over guiding the ensemble in supporting the soloist. Uchida’s solo phrases led effortlessly into the orchestral passages, with cadenzas especially exact so she could effortlessly switch to the conducting role. 

Flutist Chiara Tonelli and clarinetist Vicente Alberola were frequently paired in solo lines, with both players showing a great deal of physical energy in their playing. An elegant trio of flute, clarinet, and oboe (played by Clément Noël) was especially striking in the second movement “Adagio.”  Throughout the work, Uchida’s solo laying showed solid arm strength with light runs and particularly expert technique in the simultaneous trills in both hands which occur frequently in Mozart’s concerti, as well as in the fast and furious cadenzas which closed movements. 

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor was a sibling piece to No. 23, with the two works composed within three weeks of each other. Like No. 23, No. 24 is full of free exchanges of material between piano and orchestra, all well executed by Uchida and the Mahler Orchestra. Uchida demonstrated particular sensitivity as a soloist when slowing down the pace before the music reverted to fully orchestral passages. The Mahler Orchestra was at full strength for this work, with pairs of winds augmented by hornists Peter Erdei and Tobias Heimann and Baroque trumpeters Christopher Dicken and Noémi Makkos (playing authentic instruments rarely seen in Princeton). Uchida continued to demonstrate exact timing with the Orchestra from the keyboard, with forceful trills driving the music forward. Her first movement cadenza was dramatic, with a great deal of pedal and a mysterioso ending foreshadowing Mozart’s deathbed Requiem.

The aria-like second movement “Larghetto” showed the influence of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, with melodic lines which just as easily could have been sung by the opera’s characters. Uchida’s piano line was heavily ornamented, complemented by delicate winds. Flutist Tonelli provided an especially flourishing line, answered by bassoonist Higinio Arrue Fortea. 

Uchida and the Mahler Orchestra concluded the concerto with decisive keyboard playing of an expansive theme-and-variations form. Uchida played pointed staccato notes in one variation, followed by non-stop right-hand passages in the next section, with well-blended winds smoothing out the texture. Clarinetists Alberola and Jaan Bossier created an elegant Viennese spring day effect in one of the inner variations, accompanied solely by a string quartet of principal players. Uchida’s closing cadenza was a variation in itself, with an almost continuous trill in the right hand.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra bracketed the two Mozart concerti around four rarely-heard string Fantasias by 17th-century composer Henry Purcell. Inspired by Purcell’s study of 17th-century English and Italian counterpoint, the Fantasias were originally composed for viol consort but translated well to string ensemble. The four Fantasias performed were varied in character and key, but all began with slow introductions in which the strings of the Mahler Orchestra brought out the harmonic suspensions and climbing chromaticisms. The faster passages of these multi-section works were played in a graceful and chipper style, with a trio of double basses providing an especially solid foundation. The closing Fantasia upon One Note showed a great deal of well-executed sequential repetition and nuance among the players, adding to the overall joy of the evening.