After such a long, dark winter, there may be no better way to welcome spring than with a mini-Mozart festival.
Over the weekend, Louis Langrée was on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra podium leading two fresh and inspiring programs of Mozart for in-person concerts in Music Hall. The music added up to four Mozart symphonies and two concertos, featuring, respectively, pianist Conrad Tao in Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major and violinist Melissa White in Violin Concerto No. 3, “Strasbourg.”
This was the first weekend that the audience count was lifted from 300 to 500 – or about 25% of the hall – by permission from Gov. Mike DeWine. There was a palpable mood of optimism as more people ventured out to these 90-minute performances. Their responses were enthusiastic, and the pent-up demand also caused an extra performance to be added, for a total of five.
I took in both programs in two different concerts on Saturday, a chilly early spring day. It was remarkable to think that exactly one year ago, Music Hall had closed its doors for an unknown virus called Covid-19. But as soon as the music began, those thoughts were dispelled.
Both concerts were invigorating and crisply played. Langrée, who has led New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival since 2002, was clearly in his element and conducted the symphonies entirely from memory.
For social-distancing reasons, the orchestra has been performing with chamber-sized ensembles. The CSO musicians were evenly divided between the two programs, augmented with several CSO/CCM Diversity Fellows.
For the centerpiece, Tao made a return visit with an exceptional performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453, a work not performed here since 1982 under former music director Michael Gielen. It’s best known for its rhapsodic slow movement. The finale is a set of variations on a catchy tune that was allegedly sung by Mozart’s pet starling.
It was an unusual treat that Tao, who is also a composer, improvised his own cadenzas. Langrée invited listeners to applaud the improvisations during the performance, just as they would for jazz, and applaud they did.
The first movement’s orchestral introduction was bright and buoyant, and Tao made his entrance with a lighter-than-air touch. His playing was clear and expressive. The first-movement cadenza echoed Mozart’s trills and arpeggios, but also looked ahead to Beethoven.
The slow movement was memorable for its color and atmosphere, as well as the wonderful interplay in the winds. Here, the pianist took his time, communicating with emotional phrasing and singing tone. His cadenza was both inventive and romantic, featuring rolling chords and rich sonorities. The finale, with its joyous, Papageno-like theme, was brisk and sparkling. Langrée and the orchestra were excellent partners.
For an encore, the pianist treated with a piano transcription of the Largo from J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin.
The “omega” of this program was Mozart’s final Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter.” Launching animatedly into the opening Allegro vivace, Langrée drew a robust sound in the strings, balancing the movement’s lighter moments with wit and character. The slow movement was memorable for the sound of its muted strings, and every phrase was beautifully shaped.
Tempos in the first three movements, including the minuet, were relaxed and instrumental textures were transparent. But it was the masterful finale that was the most striking. Langrée propelled the music ahead with pointed timpani strokes. There was absolute clarity of the complicated fugal passages, and the movement’s triumphant spirit built to a powerful conclusion.
The evening concert, “Traveling with Mozart,” explored some of the middle period music, when Mozart was touring the music capitals of Europe. Langrée opened with an energized reading of Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297, “Paris.” The evening concluded with a glowing performance of Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, “Prague,” one of the marvels of the time when Mozart also had great success conducting his opera, “the Marriage of Figaro,” in Prague.
It was a performance that was both exuberant and emotionally probing. The warmth and care with which Langrée led this music was only matched by the exceptional playing of the orchestra.
But it was White’s performance of the Violin Concerto No. 3, “Strasbourg,” that left the deepest impression. The gifted violinist, who was a first-prize laureate of the Sphinx Competition and holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory, made a notable subscription concert debut.
From first note to last, she projected a big, gleaming tone on her American-made violin (commissioned as part of a Sphinx artist grant by violin maker Ryan Soltis). Her playing was elegant and thoughtful, and she navigated technical difficulties with an easy virtuosity. Most memorable was her phrasing in the slow movement. She took her time in the cadenza, as if to revel in her violin’s magnificent sound.
Langrée and the orchestra were spirited partners, and she received deserved ovations for her performance.
Langrée will continue his deep dive into Mozart with two more programs on April 24-25 in Music Hall. Tickets and information: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org.
Janelle Gelfand's work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.