Mozart Birthday Celebration

Local Arts Reviews

Mozart Birthday Celebration

First Baptist Church, Jan. 25

A couple of signature elements were missing from this year's annual Mozart Birthday Celebration at First Baptist Church. Pianist and A. Mozart Fest founder and director Mary Robbins didn't perform, and Lucian Chimene didn't provide the usual commentary.

But fully present were some of Austin's best musicians playing with the high level of intensity and enthusiasm that this annual event always brings out. Over the years, the orchestra has gotten smaller and better, and on this Sunday afternoon, there were never more than 17 players – six violins and otherwise no more than two players per part. But with Mozart, less is more. With no loss of force in the sound, you heard every nuance, a luxury you miss with a bigger orchestra in a larger hall. This group should have a full season of its own.

The collegial aspect of this group showed up in the first notes of their collaboration in Mozart's Horn Concerto in E-Flat, K. 417 with horn player James Hale. Offering minimal cues to the orchestra, Hale was more a lively conversationalist than a monologist. When you're listening to musicians up close, you expect to hear the unintended noises that are the by-product of working the instruments, but you seldom noticed the lip struggle and valve clatter as Hale coaxed his sumptuous lines out of classical music's most temperamental machine.

Polish pianist Dariusz Pawlas brought together a remarkable balance of simplicity and virtuosic extravagance in two of Mozart's piano concertos. In the B-Flat Major Concerto, K. 595 (Mozart's last piano concerto), the players showed great poise and restraint, feeling that vanishingly brief pause in the first movement when the texture goes from one of simple melodies into the work's deeply somber folds. Pawlas' no-nonsense ingenuousness served him especially well in the last movement. The repeated melody of the rondo is disarmingly innocent, and if the pianist dresses it up too much it loses its simplicity. If he doesn't do something with it, however, the theme can wear out its welcome. Pawlas' understated approach made it possible to hear the little rhythmic tweaks and accents that freshened up the melody.

While it would seem like a slam dunk to end the concert with Mozart's last piano concerto, the Concerto in F-Major, K. 459, offers a more rousing and virtuosic finish. In it, Pawlas showed himself to be not just a pianist of great restraint but a virtuoso of the classical style. The ever-beautiful line was there, and Pawlas wove it deftly into the orchestral fabric with no loose threads. But the tempos were brisker than necessary, so the first and last movements at times lost the security and definition that marked the second movement and all of K. 595. The skipping main theme of the first movement showed a stressful breathlessness that made it not seem convincingly carefree, and sometimes Pawlas sloughed off the end of one phrase to dive into the next a little early, ambushing the phrase to keep pace. The risky tempos may have cost Pawlas some style points here and there, but their degree of difficulty served the music well and kept the musicians and the audience on the edges of their seats.

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Mozart Birthday Celebration, First Baptist Church, A. Mozart Fest, Mary Robbins, Lucian Chimene, Horn Concerto in E-Flat, K. 417, James Hale, Dariusz Pawlas, B-Flat Major Concerto, K. 595, Concerto in F-Major, K. 459

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