Many music lovers had anticipated an all-Mozart program scheduled for Wait Chapel on February 28. The 250th anniversary of the composer's birth was to have been celebrated in style with a program of the master's mature works played by the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg. Alas, the ensemble cancelled its entire American tour, but I Musici di Roma took over the theme and concert dates, revising the program extensively due to the latter's lack of brasses and woodwinds. Pianist Stephen Hough, the originally-scheduled soloist, was retained. Twelve young musicians founded a chamber orchestra in 1952, originally called I Musici, to revitalize the string repertory with a focus on 17th-century Italian composers. Over the decades the group has recorded many of the Vivaldi concertos along with works by other baroque masters, using additional soloists as needed. Perhaps the players found the change from their usual heavy menu of baroque refreshing. There was nothing perfunctory in the execution of their program.
Mozart was nearing the acme of his popularity as a keyboard player in Vienna in the spring of 1784 when he composed four concertos for Lent. While all were intended for his use, the first (K.449) and last (K.453) were composed with his pupil Barbara ("Babette") Ployer in mind. He proudly wrote about them in a May 26 letter to his father, describing the Piano Concerto No. 14, in E flat, K.449, as "one of a particular sort," alluding to the moderate difficulty of the piano part and the optional scoring, allowing home performances with a string quartet. This work is also set apart from the other four by the over-abundance of ideas in the first movement, and it is also in 3/4 time. Michael Finks' fine program notes quote Alfred Einstein: "It voices an unrest that never tires of inventing contrasting themes." The composer supplied the cadenza. The slower-than-usual second movement alternates a sighing main theme with a more ornamental second one, repeated three times. The playful finale finds Mozart recycling a frisky main theme from the First Piano Concerto K.175, using it initially in the orchestra before it is taken up by the piano, "which jumps into running figures and cascading scales." The theme keeps coming back until a short cadenza and some clever rhythmic tricks bring the concerto to a brilliant conclusion.
Award-winning pianist Stephen Hough is best known to collectors for his series of recordings exploring the byways of late Romanticism along with more standard works by Brahms and Saint-Saëns. He first came to attention for his Liszt and an enterprising exploration of late Classicism with Hummel concertos. He played the Mozart keyboard part with outstanding dexterity and style, securing a refined tone with crystal-clear musical lines combined with a refined application of color. His scintillating playing of the first and last movements was complemented by his seamless weaving of the themes in the middle movement. A colorful sartorial touch was his sporting a pair of dark green velvet slippers. The give-and-take between the pianist and the strings, led by Antonio Salvatore, was flawless.
All three works on the rest of the program were beautiful lightweight compositions from the divertimento and serenade categories, rather high class background music for the court. The twelfth musician of I Musici is usually a harpsichordist. None was needed for Mozart but a timpanist was employed, stage right, for the Serenade in D for Two Small Orchestras, K.239, known as the "Serenata notturna." The players were reconfigured with leader Salvatore and a violin, viola, and double-bass on stage left while another four violins and viola joined the timpanist on the opposite side; the cellos formed a short link between the two groups. The march, minuet, and rondo exploited the "stereo-effects" of this layout. Divertimento in D, K.136 (K.125a), is one of three such joyful and bustling works. The final presto is a favorite encore of chamber orchestras and quartets. The ever-popular Serenade in G for Strings, K.525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik) ended the program. I Musici performed all of these with elegance, crisp attacks and refined articulation. With such consummate pianism and polished string playing, few who attended the Wait Chapel concert could have been disappointed with the partial changes of artists and program.
The Secrest Artists Series was endowed in 1987 by Marion Secrest in honor of her late husband. This concert was dedicated to her. She was present and was asked to stand while the audience heartily applauded her and honored her recent 100th birthday. Many an 80 year old would envy her apparent health. Brava!