Mozart’s music didn‘t merely fill the Hollywood Bowl last week; it fulfilled it. The vast space, in which the banalities of Rachmaninoff, etc., rattled around (to the delight of some) on other weeks this summer, seemed exactly the right size for the two programs of profuse small miracles conducted by Peter Oundjian. The Philharmonic itself was reduced to proper Mozartian size; the empty spaces on the stage where trombones, bass drum and cymbals are deployed in repertory of — I want to say lesser here, but that would stir up the letter writers — different states of mind were filled for these two concerts with a row of potted greenery, very nice. Both concerts drew audiences in the seven-thousands, considerably above the average on ”classical“ nights at the Bowl. There’s hope for us yet.
Oundjian, the second Canadian conductor at the Bowl in two weeks, is best-known for his many years as first violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet; now he has caught the baton bug, and the years of chamber music, of attending to the give-and-take and all the other subtleties associated with that repertory, came through in his orchestral leadership as well. Some poor microphoning — a common affliction this summer at almost every Bowl concert I‘ve attended — undermined the small-scale effects he was obviously trying for, although the balance on the second concert was distinctly better. Also to Oundjian’s credit was his faithful attention to Mozart‘s prescribed repeats in the sonata-form movements of the three symphonies he conducted — Nos. 29 and 38 (”The Prague“) on Tuesday, No. 41 (”The Jupiter“) on Thursday. Helene Grimaud was the tense, wonderfully driven soloist in the D-minor Piano Concerto on Tuesday. Julia Fischer, the latest in an apparently inexhaustible inventory of teenage violinists from here and abroad, skated across the notes, but not the music, of the Fourth Violin Concerto on Thursday.
Miracles; I’ve used the word, and I‘ll stay with it. In a lifetime with Mozart’s music I am still surprised, shaken, momentarily ashiver at those moments when the heavens seem to part and revelations fill the sky. There is one in the slow movement of the concerto that Grimaud played, when the pianist, alone over a quiet accompanying throb, plays a one-finger melody: pure, radiant, lovable, the song that Susanna might sing once her marriage to Figaro is finally assured. Another comes only three or four minutes later, when the fearsome outburst that suddenly erupted subsides just as suddenly. Mozart has tightened the emotional screws; now the momentum gradually slackens and the tune itself seems to disintegrate. Like a race-car driver downshifting, the notes gradually lengthen; 16ths become eighths become quarters, and then we‘re somewhere else in the music. Very slippery, wonderfully imaginative.
The Symphony No. 29 began the Tuesday concert, music from Mozart’s feisty adolescence but with its own share of strange and wonderful events that the Bowl performance nicely brought forward. There‘s a manic quality in the orchestration; it comes mostly from the way Mozart uses the horns. In A major, the key of this work, the horns spend a lot of time on the red-hot high E, the dominant note. This is the same curdling note that Beethoven later used, to the same effect, in his Seventh Symphony (which is also in A major); Mozart, with splendid help last week from the Philharmonic’s Jerry Folsom, got there first.
Two nights later came ”The Jupiter,“ with its own catalog of miracles. Just the opening is astounding enough, the ”him and her“ conversation that constitutes the opening theme, the great bluster as the full orchestra takes over, a reprise of that initial conversation but now subdued, wistful, wound around with gorgeous commentary from the winds. Has anyone done an accurate count of the number of separate tunes in that first movement, strung out in nonstop concatenation, rising, falling, capturing our ability to breathe? To me, however, the apocalyptic moment in ”The Jupiter“ comes somewhat later, just beyond the midpoint of the sublime, deeply affecting slow movement. The ever-so-slightly disturbed opening music has been explored and turned upon itself; its harmonies, moving with some sense of terror through minor keys, lead us finally to the point where we might expect the return of the first theme to round out the grand design. Mozart provides an extraordinary bridge to that expected return; flute and oboe twist around one another, creating harmonies so poignant as to cause actual pain. It‘s a small moment; it goes by quickly, so that you experience it in a kind of double take. Once you’ve absorbed ”The Jupiter“ into your own bloodstream, you learn to wait for that moment, and to experience the pain every time.
Three years after Mozart‘s death, his widow, Constanze, arranged a memorial concert, and the 24-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven, newly arrived in Vienna and already launched as music’s latest conqueror, was invited to perform the D-minor Concerto. It apparently affected him strongly; it doesn‘t stretch a point to suggest that the D-minor clouds and murk that open Mozart’s concerto may have foreshadowed the D-minor clouds and murk at the start of Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony 30 years later. At the concerto performance, Beethoven had improvised a cadenza; he later wrote it down and presented it to Constanze. It consists of five minutes of extraordinary, disturbing, difficult, revelatory music, and its further value is, of course, as a document of one supreme composer’s take on another. On my rather large Mozart shelf, the only recording of that concerto that uses Beethoven‘s cadenza — and it’s a superb one — is by Mitsuko Uchida.
Grimaud used that cadenza in her Bowl performance; it accorded very well with her overall conception of the work: strong, forthright, dramatic, fully responsive to the music‘s D-minorness — the key, after all, of Don Giovanni’s descent to Hell. Grimaud‘s last appearance at the Bowl had been sabotaged by video cameramen wandering around onstage and distracting her (as the screen clearly showed). This time she — and Mozart — were fully in charge.