By Scott MacClelland
SCHLAG, a fairly ugly-sounding word to English speakers that in German means whipped cream, good for topping tortes and sweetening coffee. It also worked well for the first two weeks of 2017, from Hidden Valley’s SongFest of Schubert Lieder, the complete Mozart violin concertos courtesy the Curtis on Tour chamber orchestra in Carmel and the Santa Cruz Chamber Players’ “Made in Vienna” program heard Sunday afternoon in Aptos.
The only caveat is there is almost nothing totally sweet about Schubert’s songs, some of which are the most heart-gripping in the Lieder literature. Memorable among them are two of the five sung on Sunday by mezzo-soprano Solmaaz Adeli, “Die junge Nonne” (The Young Nun) and “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden), both dramatically intense works full of raw emotion. It was there, and in Joseph Haydn’s 1790 cantata, Arianna à Naxos, where Adeli was at her best. (She was among the 15 applicants, selected from some 300, who participated in the SongFest master classes in Carmel Valley.) For this concert, Adeli shared artistic directorship duties for the SC Chamber Players with pianist Elizabeth Schumann, a brilliant musician who dazzled the house (Christ Lutheran Church) to consensus. “Where did she come from!” one stunned concertgoer exclaimed to me.
This was the acclaim she received following the concert-opening Piano Trio in C (H XV:27) by Haydn, c. 1794, a virtuoso showpiece that stands well above the demands of most of the composer’s popular Hausmusik piano trios. Schumann’s irresistible gush and joy in defining dynamic contrasts while performing the piece was equally reflected in her animated, smiling face. She and her colleagues, violinist Shannon Delaney and cellist Kristin Garbeff, inspired many musical pros in the overflow audience to stand for their applause.
Schumann proved an equal partner to Adeli in the Schubert songs, and was equally dialed in. The fatalistic opening “Der König von Thule” (The King of Thule) was mutually and deliberately paced with long thoughtful pauses.
The program continued with three of the six preludes and fugues for violin, viola and cello by Mozart, the fugues being arrangements of selections from JS Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Then came the great Arianna à Naxos, a tour de force dramatically and emotionally, depicting the full range of fear, grief and anger felt by Arianna when she finally realizes that her lover, Theseus, has abandoned her forever on the island of Naxos. Haydn, who almost never wears his heart on his sleeve, was truly inspired here, the words somehow lifting his musical instincts to rare heights and suggesting a good reason to take a fresh look at his many operas, virtually unknown today.
Heard the afternoon before at Sunset Center was the Curtis on Tour orchestra of eleven strings and two each of oboes and horns. This second of two programs of the violin concertos by Mozart contained the concertos in D (Nos. 2 and 4) plus the greatest of them all, the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K364. The five concertos were all composed in 1775 when Mozart was 19. The program note suggested that they were the work of an otherwise bored teenager living in the backwater town of Salzburg. Regardless, he made substantial progress in his compositional skills using as a springboard the concertos by the late-Baroque Italian violinist Giuseppe Tartini. For the concerto No. 2, the soloist was Abigail Fayette and for No. 4, Brandon Garbot, both members of the orchestra and brilliant virtuosos in their own right.
The Sinfonia Concertante was written four years later while Mozart was on a discovery and performance tour of Europe, including visits to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris and Munich. (During the period, he was desperately trying to find a suitable post that was as far from Salzburg as he could get.) The main difference between the concertos and the Sinfonia, aside the latter featuring violin and viola as equal soloists, is the infusion of operatic elements. (By that time, Mozart had already composed some ten operas—loosely speaking—and had fallen in and out of love.) These qualities come into sharp focus in the haunting andante movement. But, as the name of the form suggests, symphonic elements are magnified in the opening Allegro maestoso, which features a spectacular example of the Mannheim Rocket, a device famously invented and indulged by the greatest orchestra in Europe at that time. One will search high and low to find other examples of this hybrid form in that era—Mozart wrote another and Haydn composed a fine one—but K364 surpasses them both.
For this occasion, the violinist was Shmuel Ashkenasi and the violist Roberto Díaz, both among the Curtis faculty. (Díaz serves as president and CEO of the famous music school in Philadelphia.) In 2015 Díaz was a soloist with the Monterey Symphony in William Walton’s Viola Concerto.
This entire program was a pleasure to hear, not least because these works rarely get a hearing in this area. As Santa Cruz Symphony music director Daniel Stewart is himself a violist, I would expect him to perform the Sinfonia Concertante with his new concertmaster sometime in the not-too-distant future.
(Photo of Elizabeth Schumann by Lewis Carlyle)