John Chacona | Guest Reviewer
Gerard Schwarz led New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival for 18 years, so it’s only natural that the composer would turn up for the season-ending program of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the form of the Piano Concerto No. 19, K.459.
What was surprising, perhaps, was that the first notes of the evening’s program would also be Mozart’s, though the piece was credited to the American composer Daniel Brewbaker. That piece, “Be Thou The Voice,” is a setting of a Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Mozart, 1935.” Written in the years of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, Stevens’ poem urged artists to make art in dark times. “Poet,” he urges in the opening line, “be seated at the piano.”
Brewbaker set this call to arms to a mash-up of Mozart quotes (I heard bits of the “Marriage of Figaro” overture, one of the Horn Concertos and the “Requiem” flying by) in a sort of post-modern, seven-minute Classical Symphony with soprano vocal. Allison Sanders, who for the last four years has studied with Marlena Malas in the Voice Program, was the clear and accurate soloist.
The piece bubbled along with Rococo brightness until the line “Strike the piercing chord,” when darker colors, including a Gershwin-esque clarinet melody, take over (1935 also was the year Porgy and Bess premiered). Stevens exhorted the artist to “be thou/The voice of angry fear,/The voice of this besieging pain.”
The climactic moment — and Sanders’ top note — came on the line “And the streets are full of cries.” It was an image that had chilling resonance for the current moment, but the storm passed and Brewbaker’s music dissolved into a dreamy, half-recalled Mozart piano concerto, a voice calling to us from the past — from eternity, maybe — speaking a language of Apollonian equipoise and perfect symmetry.
Horacio Gutiérrez also heard that voice and offered a Mozart concerto of small-scaled grace and consolation. This concert was Gutiérrez’s first with an orchestra since his wife, pianist Patricia Asher, was released from a three-month hospital stay after being struck by a bus in April. In an interview in Tuesday’s Daily, Gutiérrez said of his long-time colleague Schwarz, “I would love him to be the first conductor I play with after this accident that happened with my wife. … It will make us both feel like normal life is resuming again.”
Gutiérrez, known for a big technique and bravura approach, played this music as though it were an interior conversation.
“Music is eternal” seemed to be the subject, and Gutiérrez, with flawless passagework and bell-like tone, made it sound like the first day of spring. Schwarz must have conducted K.459 dozens of times, and if he didn’t bring the same level of innigkeit to his contribution, he accompanied Gutiérrez sympathetically (if sometimes a bit loudly from my vantage point) and with piquant highlights from the CSO wind band.
Schwarz favored quick tempos in the Mozart. Perhaps he was building momentum for the Beethoven Seventh Symphony that concluded the program.
It was an energetic performance that often sounded hard-pressed.
Schwarz’s phrases were equally weighted and often lacked shape. There was ample force (and volume) but little power. Schwarz seemed to be arguing (successfully, as far as it went) for the popularity of Beethoven’s music but not for its importance. It’s hard to be swept away by a piece that is as thrice-familiar as the Beethoven Seventh. Still, this was an oddly inconsequential reading of a masterpiece.
John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie-Times News.