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. more