Soloist gets in Mozart's, orchestra's way

Symphony: Pianist Dickran Atamian clangs the charm out of the 23rd Piano Concerto during an ASO performance.

February 03, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You might remember that Thomas Hobbes, the not very optimistic political theoretician of 17th-century Britain, described human life in its natural state as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

I couldn't help but recall Hobbes' description as I listened to pianist Dickran Atamian play Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto with Leslie Dunner's Annapolis Symphony Orchestra on Saturday.

It was a solitary performance because the pianist was in a world of his own, seemingly unaware that Mozart had imbued the score with grace and poetry, and that the orchestra was doing its best to convey the composer's intentions.

Nasty and brutish? Yes indeed, for Atamian banged and clanged his way through the piece, conveying none of its charm or gentleness of spirit.

Mozart had been busily at work on "The Marriage of Figaro" just before composing this concerto, and much of the lyricism of that opera found its way into this piece. Mozart left out the trumpets and drums that lend crispness and thump to the other concertos in his canon. He also omitted the oboes, replacing them with a pair of clarinets, the better to convey his warm sentiments.

Such considerations couldn't have been further from the soloist's performance. The passage in the first movement that should ripple and flow with a supple touch sounded downright abrasive. Distended phrasing pulled the yearning melody that opens the second movement out of whack, and the ebullient finale was heavy and joyless.

I was brought up short by this performance. Atamian, an established pianist with some impressive recordings to his credit, should be above such willful deconstruction.

Taut, muscular Mozart can be welcome to the ear, and there are pianists who overdo the delicacy and make dear Wolfgang sound like something emanating from a music box. But by going too far to the other extreme, Atamian squandered the opportunity for effective rebuttal.

He also squandered some nice playing by the orchestra, which served up an alert, collegial accompaniment that was rejected by the pianist's "in your face" approach. Indeed, the zippy, joyful "Impresario" overture that opened the program left me eager to sample more of Dunner's Mozart. Maybe next year.

I also found much to admire in the symphony's traversal of Anton Bruckner's long, dense and powerful Sixth Symphony. Despite a workweek shortened by snow, the orchestra turned in a lofty, convincing reading that held my interest from first to last and left me admiring the Annapolis Symphony's trumpets and trombones.

This was a tall order, and they brought it off.

A polka by Johann Strauss capped the evening off with some much-needed charm. Between the concerto and an hour with Bruckner, whose music is extraordinary but a little lacking in frivolity, a bit of froth was welcome indeed.

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