Capturing the essence of Mozart

Review: Conductor Anne Harrigan, paying attention to details, led the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra in a largely engaging and magical night of music.

October 26, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra wrapped itself in the comforting mantle of Mozart for its season-opening concert on Wednesday.

The program was chosen many months ago, but proved doubly welcome; music director Anne Harrigan told the full house at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium that she and her colleagues needed to drink in the beauty of Mozart now more than ever. That beauty flowed quite steadily all evening.

Mozart's capacity for ingratiating melody and brilliant thematic development never fails to amaze. In the rough wake of recent events, perhaps his music sounds more inspired and important, even more sacred. As if anxious to savor each note, Harrigan kept tempos mostly relaxed; nothing zipped by in an 18th-century breeze.

The pace was a little too sluggish in the Overture to The Impresario, which can easily handle a zesty ride. Yet the charm of the writing had no trouble emerging as the conductor paid careful attention to subtle details. The ensemble, which includes several Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members, sounded fresh, involved and secure.

At the heart of the program was the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat. From its imperial start to the sudden appearance of a stately minuet in the middle of an otherwise rambunctious finale, the concerto abounds in distinctive touches. The principal characteristics of the composer's style are all here - elegance, carefully modulated solemnity, humor.

The soloist was Helen Huang, who first made her mark as a child prodigy and won't be out of her teens until next year. She is an instinctive player, who can shape a musical line and build cohesive musical statements; she is also a fluent technician. That much was clear when she was 12 and still apparent on Wednesday, especially in the cadenzas.

What Huang did not reveal was much individuality. Hers was a correct performance, everything in its place and under control. But the range of tone coloring was not very wide; the finale's main dancing tune, for example, invites myriad shadings. And the second movement's dark layer of emotion went largely unexplored.

That said, the unhurried performance had a pleasant warmth, enhanced by some lyrical efforts by the orchestra's winds and Harrigan's attentive support.

Symphony No. 41 picked up the nickname Jupiter long after Mozart's death; the score's grand dimensions and astonishing craftsmanship, particularly in the finale, suggested the title. Continuing her somewhat laid-back approach, until the propulsive ending, Harrigan traded in some of the symphony's majestic implications for a more down-to-earth, personal statement. The result was consistently eloquent and engaging.

Except in the third movement, which had some rough patches, and a few moments in the finale, the orchestra responded to the conductor with supple playing that captured the incomparable magic of Mozart.

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