The Spokane Symphony’s Casual Classics concert Friday led its audience away from the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox into the court and theaters of 1790s Vienna. The journey aimed to answer the question: Why is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart so great?
Conductor Eckart Preu put together a lively evening of works by Mozart and his Viennese friends and rivals. Preu opened the concert with the Overture to Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan tutte” and ended with his “Haffner” Symphony. In between were sprightly operatic overtures by Antonio Salieri, Domenico Cimarosa and Joseph Haydn, along with an unusual Concerto for Double Bass by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.
After the concert was over, few in the audience would deny that Mozart was the winner, with Hadyn a close second with his Overture to an English Opera.
“But if you didn’t know that these other pieces were not by Mozart,” Preu told the audience, “it might not be so easy to say which ones were not.”
Mozart today is acknowledged as famously great, and the rest (except for Haydn) are seldom heard or heard of.
To hear Mozart’s Overture to “Cosi fan tutte” immediately after Salieri’s Overture to “Cublai, gran kan dei tartari” – composed within two years of each other – gave a few clues to the difference. Salieri sets a bright, cheery mood, contrasts it with music that is more lyrical, and returns to cheeriness. Mozart manages to be cheery but with an underlying current of tension, then lyrical but with underlying urgency.
A friend in Friday’s audience reminded me of a phrase from Daniel Barenboim’s recent book “Music Quickens Time.” Barenboim writes, “Mozart’s music is a special mix of depth and lightness.” After looking up that quote, I noticed that later he writes, “There is no other composer where each contour is so strongly defined by its opposite.”
That gift for contests and connection was even more evident in the two large-scale pieces heard Friday, Ditterdorf’s Concerto for Double Bass and Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony.
Patrick McNally, the symphony’s principal double bassist, played beautifully. McNally handily overcame the instrument’s gruff reticence, rising to Dittersdorf’s challenges of rapid string crossings, making his flutelike harmonics sing clearly, and making the high trumpet call passages in the finale ring out nicely.
But the symphonic drama that came after intermission in Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony made Dittersdorf seem like a schoolroom singalong, despite the concerto’s formidable virtuoso difficulties.
The nearest thing to real rivalry to Mozart during the evening – for me, at least – was Cimarosa’s frothy overture to “Il matrimonio segreto.” Written the year after Mozart’s death, this comic opera was an enormous success, performed for years all over Europe when Mozart’s great comedies went virtually unknown. Cimarosa created a wittily busy atmosphere that, at moments, darkened slightly as its music sped along.
The greatest compliment one could pay to Cimarosa nowadays would be to admit “it was almost like Mozart.”
Preu and the orchestra made the evening not just an informative adventure but a jolly romp through 18th-century Vienna.