The theme of the Topeka Symphony Orchestra’s 72nd season is “Revolution.” In the words of music director and conductor, Kyle Wiley Pickett, the TSO will present “music that commemorates when revolutions were born, when the old ways were thrown off, and when new world orders emerged.” For its opening concert last Saturday, the TSO commemorated the Reformation, performing Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”), J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20.
Born into a Jewish family, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was baptized as a Protestant in 1816 at the behest of his father, thus obtaining full civil rights as a Prussian. Mendelssohn composed his Symphony No. 5, Op. 107, known as the “Reformation,” in 1830. The symphony commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, which sets forth the essence of the Lutheran faith in 28 articles. In the first movement of the work, Mendelssohn engages in contrapuntal writing reminiscent of the great Catholic composer, Palestrina. The last movement, however, is structured on the Lutheran hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). The TSO gave an exciting and energetic performance of this work. The first movement was appropriately paced and majestic, and in the final, triumphant conclusion, the brass section especially shone, declaring the hymn with intensity and warmth.
Consistent with the Reformation theme, members of the TSO performed music of the greatest of all Lutheran composers, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), with his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048. Bach composed the six Brandenburg Concertos while employed by Prince Leopold of Cothen (1717-1723) and sold the manuscript of the six concertos for 24 Groschen in silver (a little more than $20). The concertos are now considered among the greatest concerto grossos ever written. The third concerto was composed in 1719. The first and third movements, bound by a very brief second movement, are in ritornello form, in which a recurring musical passage played by the entire ensemble alternates with solo episodes. The members of the TSO gave a joyous reading of this work, highlighting its many infectious melodies. Ensemble playing was delightful, as themes were tossed effortlessly from one instrument to another.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the TSO’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) with Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez. Of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos, only two were written in minor keys, and No. 20 is among the darkest and most dramatic of Mozart’s works. Martinez, a First Prize winner of the Anton G. Rubinstein International Piano Competition and a semifinalist at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, gave a riveting performance. The balance between the soloist and orchestra was excellent. The cadenzas in the first and third movements—composed by Beethoven and arranged by a friend of Martinez—were brilliant, and Martinez performed the famous theme of the second movement, poignant and arresting, with great sensitivity. My only quibble is that I would have preferred a longer pause between the second and third movements to allow the final, haunting chords of the former to sink into the listener’s consciousness. The final movement was brisk, but not too much so, with many contrasts in dynamics befitting this dramatic work.
In sum, the Topeka Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert was filled with great music making with well-chosen works that complemented each other thematically, showcasing the various talents of the TSO. I look forward to the next installment in the TSO’s series commemorating revolutions.