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Members of the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts were joined by a gifted graduate student as they celebrated Mozart’s birthday with musical gifts. The overflow crowd delayed the concert a quarter of an hour as ushers and staff sought empty seats for the hundred or so desperate Mozart-lovers in the lobby of Watson Hall. Programs were also in short supply. Scheduled soprano, Marilyn Taylor, was indisposed causing a minor reshuffling of the order of the program, announced by Wade Weast, Dean of the School of Music.
Born on January 27, 1756, Mozart has been a favorite of musicians and audiences alike. His music is always expressive, often operatic, even when played, not sung. There is a freshness and spontaneity which hide the profound musical unities underlying his music. The Mozart Birthday concert has been a long tradition at UNCSA, dating back into the 1970s, although in some years it was not the annual event it has become. When last reviewed in 2010, the unifying characteristic of the concert was the year 1781, the year when all the works presented were written. This year’s unifying characteristic was the presence of the piano at all times, although for the operatic excerpts, the piano was replacing the orchestra.
A gifted improviser, Mozart often led performances in which his own piano part was only partially complete; such is apparently the case in the opening work of the concert, the Sonata (32) for violin and piano, K. 454 in Bb, played by UNCSA Artist-Faculty members Joseph Genualdi, violin, and, Eric Larsen, piano. The first movement opens with a moving Largo in which both players exchange lyrical passages, yielding to a jolly Allegro. Genualdi played with a subtly under-stated elegance, Larsen with a delicate touch appropriate for the style of this sonata. Both let out the stops in the coda of the third movement with its bravura cascades of triplets.
Soprano Megan Ann Cleaveland is a graduate student at UNCSA, in the studio of Glenn Siebert. It is a tribute to her lovely voice to have been selected as the only non-faculty member to perform in this concert. Tall and svelte, Ms. Cleaveland is gifted with a powerful coloratura voice with a lovely vibrato, which was beautifully showcased by this early aria of Mozart, “Alla selva, al prato, al fonte” from Il re pastore. Ms. Cleaveland made a second appearance to close the concert with the show-stopping aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“Hell's vengeance boils in my heart"), sung by the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte (Magic Flute). Here her pitch accuracy was impressive!
After a short intermission, we were again treated to a violin Sonata, K. 526, one of the last of Mozart’s production of 36 such sonatas, here performed by Kevin Lawrence, violin, and Dmitri Sheinberg, new this year to the UNCSA faculty. The contrast of the two sonatas in this concert was astounding, as well as the musical styles of the performers. This Sonata in A Major starts with a brisk 6/8 movement marked Molto allegro, filled with off-beat accents (hemiola). A particularly intricate Andante ensues, followed by a boisterous Presto finale, a perpetual motion of sorts. One is tempted to compare the performers of the respective violin sonatas, but this is not possible considering the hugely contrasting natures of the two sonatas. Kevin Lawrence played many brilliant “off the string” passages, while the more introspective nature of K. 454 kept Joseph Genualdi “on the string.” The same may be said of the pianists, Larsen obeying K.454’s need for discretion and Sheinberg exhibiting the brilliance required for the exuberant K. 526. Bravo to all four performers for highlighting the tremendous range of expression of Mr. Mozart!
Glenn Siebert, accompanied by Allison Gagnon, used his beautiful and skillfully controlled voice to sing the recitative and aria, “In qual fiero contrasto… Tradito, schernito” from Così fan tutte. Although it ends quietly, this was one of the high points of the evening. A special word about Allison Gagnon, who accompanied both singers. She is a fine pianist who has chosen the career path of collaborative musician, forgoing that of the soloist, and for this should we all applaud her, for she is a sensitive and musical artist, possessed of the highest virtuosity.
As mentioned earlier, the concert ended with the thrilling aria from Mozart’s last opera, Zauberflöte, composed in the year of his death, 1791. The audience then adjourned to the lobby for pastry and hot chocolate, ending this year’s birthday tribute to the genius of Mozart.