Surely one of the most anticipated concerts of Carolina Performing Arts‘ 2018-19 season was this one, featuring the celebrated international pianist Mitsuko Uchida. While her repertoire is broad, many music lovers came to know her through her recordings of the piano concertos and sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). If Lili Kraus set the bar for Mozart for the WWII generation, Uchida has done so for the 21st century listeners.

Uchida has rejoined the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (founded in 1997) for a five-year project centered upon her direction of the Mozart piano concertos from the keyboard.* The orchestra is a nomadic collective of musicians who unite for specific tours. With a core of 45 players from 20 countries, they have performed in 40 countries on five continents. Memorial Hall was the ideal venue for Uchida and the accompanying ensemble.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K.459, opened the concert. It was composed in 1784 and features equality between the keyboard and orchestra. It is in three movements: an Allegro dominated by a martial rhythm, bold wind scoring in the Allegretto, and homophony juxtaposed with counterpoint in the concluding Allegro. Mozart composed the first and third movement cadenzas.

For the concertos, the lid of the piano had been removed and the piano rotated so the entire keyboard faced the audience. Uchida stood to direct extended orchestral introductions but remained seated otherwise. The introduction to K.459 revealed an ensemble of musicians of extraordinary quality, strings with beautiful tone that played as one, and an amazing wind group that perfectly balanced strong characterization while blending together. Uchida’s playing was breathtaking and wonderfully clear, with stylish articulation, subtle dynamic control (of both keyboard and orchestra), and a refined palette of tone color. The flourishes and trills in the composer’s cadenza were a delight.

Next came three pieces from the Lyric Suite by Alban Berg (1885-1935). The original 1925-26 version was in six movements for string quartet. Berg’s publisher, Emil Hertzka of Universal Edition, suggested a version for string orchestra. Berg recast movements 2, Andante amoroso, 3 Allegro misterioso, and 4, Adagio appassionato. This suite was Berg’s first major use of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, adapted for his own approach. After Berg’s wife’s death, the composer’s copy of the quartet score, given to Hannah Fuchs-Robertin, with whom he had had a 10-year affair, came to the notice of scholars. Berg annotated musical passages representing Hanna and family members. She is most abundantly represented in the Andante amoroso movement.

Concertmaster Matthew Truscott led the Mahler string players, with all but cellists standing, in a refined, exquisitely prepared interpretation. Dynamics were finely graduated and string tone was golden. Truscott and the second violin leader, viola, and cello had fine solo episodes. There was a plethora of string techniques, notes bowed close to the bridge, bows bounced off the strings or finger board, a variety of subtle pizzicatos, to name but a few.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466, composed in 1785, ended the printed program. It features subtle, brooding chromaticism with stormy outbursts and strong contrasts between the piano and the orchestra. A pair of trombones and timpani were added to the orchestra forces used for K.459. A turbulent Allegro is followed by largely serene Romance, aside from a fiery G minor episode from the keyboard. The agitated final Rondo foreshadows the spirit of Don Giovanni, K.527. Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto. Uchida used those composed by Beethoven.

Uchida brought out all the menacing drama of the opening, underlined by the additional players and growing dynamics. Her playing of the gentle, lyric figure was the perfect foil to threatening orchestral responses. Uchida spun the lyric, tranquil melody of the middle movement with an almost timeless atmosphere. That made her towering rush of the keyboard from end to end all the more effective. Among the many joys of the wind players was their dialog with Uchida just before she played the socks off Beethoven’s cadenza in the finale. This performance made clear why the nineteenth century was so attracted to the passionate intensity to this concerto.

In response to a prolonged standing ovation, Uchida played a brief, witty, even insouciant selection, No. 2 from Six Little Piano Pieces by Arnold Schoenberg.

*Emil Kang, executive and artistic director of CPA, announced an exclusive multi-year agreement with Carnegie Hall to present Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in their current Mozart Piano Concerto Project. Those will be must-have tickets!