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FIRST FLIGHTS

At the Philharmonic, last week and this, the light of reason shines
bright. No brutality sullies the sonority. Trombones, tubas and triangles are
furloughed for the moment; pairs of woodwinds and brass, a solitary drummer,
and a reduced string contingent suffice. The young Joseph Haydn, joyous in the
new job that will support him for a lifetime, plays at inventing the symphony.
The unruly Beethoven breathes his own brand of fire into five stupendous, dissimilar
ventures in the fashioning of piano concertos; against the baby steps of the
young Haydn, they seem even taller than usual.

Cut down to classical-era size, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonic
plays with exquisite clarity and lets us hear all kinds of new things. As he
often does in this repertory, Salonen wisely reseats the orchestra, with the
second violins to his right, to equalize the give-and-take among the string
players; it makes a difference. Does anyone bother to notice Beethoven’s sublime
scoring, for solo winds, clarinet and bassoon especially, in the slow movements
of these concertos? Pianist Mitsuko Uchida is the perfect companion in the Beethoven,
to hear and to see. Nobody, of any gender you can name, looks more alluring
in pants than she.

I’m reporting on the first two events. If we all move fast enough,
we can make the third together; it includes the “Emperor” Concerto.
It was a rash and enterprising notion on Salonen’s part, to plan three subscription
programs in basically the same orchestral language. Ordinary philosophy ordains
that a Beethoven piano concerto should be washed down with, perhaps, a Strauss
tone poem. By acting otherwise, both Salonen and Uchida make everything on all
three concerts sound like the evening’s highlight.

And indeed, everything is. Haydn’s history is well enough known:
how, at 28, he fell into the Kapellmeister’s job at the Esterházy premises,
which he proceeded to embellish lavishly with a voluminous repertory of chamber
music, symphonies and every etcetera in the book for the rest of a long and
honorable life — pausing along the way to offer valuable support to the upcoming
Mozart and Beethoven. It would serve no purpose to claim every work from his
prodigal pen a distinctive masterwork; enough of them, however, came close.

The three symphonies that turn up on the current Philharmonic
series are the first works Haydn composed for the Esterházy family, and
for first flights they soar remarkably high. For one thing, they demonstrate
the political skills that any ambitious composer today might well study; to
ingratiate himself with his newly acquired orchestra, for example, Haydn sprinkled
his three symphonies with lots of solos for the leading players: flute, violins,
even the double bass. Number 7, the second of the three, is a particularly endearing
hullabaloo, with horns a-howling and one whole movement given over to a mock-operatic
scene, a wordless but potent argument among flutes, violin and cello.

Beyond this, there is an assuredness in the melodic writing, even
in these journeyman works, that some of Haydn’s lesser contemporaries — Signor
Boccherini, for example — seldom if ever achieved. Musical scholars tend to
hold up Haydn’s career — the steady rise of his fortunes, his exemplary honesty
in the musical world (no less booby-trapped then than now) and the quality of
his legacy — as one of music’s few genuinely happy tales. These early symphonies,
which Salonen’s modest orchestral forces shaped and delivered with high imagination
and wit, show that the story was already under way in 1760.

BLITHE SPIRIT

The year was, I think, 1987; a pianist unfamiliar to me was playing
Mozart concertos at Ambassador, and I let myself be dragged along under some
protest. I have worshipped at the altar of Mitsuko Uchida ever since. My Uchida
treasures include the complete sonatas in the Philips Mozart Bicentennial series;
a laserdisc that cries out for DVD reissue, in which Uchida talks through the
piano etudes of Debussy and then performs them; the Schubert G-major Sonata,
which brings on tears just by thinking about it; Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto
with Boulez conducting, wherein heart and brains — if you’ll pardon the anatomy
— go hand in hand.

The spirit of this woman accompanies her from her first moment
onstage, a rhapsody of swirling fabric (silk, I guess, but what do I know?)
that settles weightless around her as she plays. I’ve never cared all that much
for the Beethoven Second Concerto, but now I know what it looks like
in the person of Uchida’s performance — gossamer intertwined — and that will
help. One moment, the soft question-and-answer between pianist and orchestra
that serves as a kind of cadenza to the slow movement, simply stopped my breath.
Why have I never noticed it before?

It was in the Third Piano Concerto, which began the second of
the three nights, that the Uchida magic was fully engaged — more so, to my taste,
than in the concluding Fourth Concerto, which is generally accorded higher grade
points on the Beethoven report card and in which, by a margin measurable only
with the most exacting microscopes, I found Uchida somewhat uninvolved this
time around.

The marvel in her version of Number 3 lay, once again, in innumerable
details that had somehow escaped my attention in previous hearings. One patch
still swirls in my head as I write these words: the piano in the slow movement,
moving steadily and quietly through slow arpeggios while the Philharmonic’s
Anne Diener Zentner and David Breidenthal entwined their flute and bassoon into
the audible equivalent of the perfect Godiva chocolate. I have heard this moment
probably half a hundred times without it reaching me the way it did this once
through the combination of a perfectly formed small orchestra and the blithe
spirit at the keyboard, making the music happen.

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