Internationally acclaimed conductor Sir Roger Norrington, best known for historically informed period performances with limited use of vibrato, has recently been principal conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra from 2011 to 2016. Displaying a spirit of Brit informality, neither Norrington nor guest pianist Benjamin Grosvenor sported a tie. Norrington encouraged the audience to applaud after each movement, as was done during the days of Mozart. Exuding contagious affability, Norrington conducts with coaxing hands, sans baton.
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s celebrated the Thirtieth Anniversary of its Carnegie Hall series. This All-Mozart Program under Norrington’s direction (he was their first director between 1990-94) opened with Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319 written in July, 1779, in three movements with a minuet added later. The deceptively simple orchestration innovates by allowing the bassoons to be briefly independent of the basses, a first such window in symphony composition. This unexceptional symphony served as a foil for what was to come.
Mozart did not even have time to play through the rondo finale of piano concerto No. 20, K.466 before publicly performing the piece February 11, 1785 in Vienna as part of Mozart’s Lent subscription series, which boasted 150 subscribers. Among the fifteen piano concertos composed by Mozart between 1782 and 1786, the D minor stands out for tragic turmoil, accented through the minor key, Mozart’s first piano concerto in a minor key.
The piano’s cooperative integration with the orchestra remains thrilling as the piece opens with melancholy shudder. Is the theme about the exuberant delights of music and Mozart’s fear of failure—on making a living from music? The concerto remains irresistibly haunting. Benjamin Grosvenor captured that magic with appropriate intensity amid orchestral soaring with short pregnant pauses in tempo. Flutist Elizabeth Mann was outstanding. The concluding rondo achieves unexpected optimism, letting the audience off the hook. Beethoven was so influenced by this concerto that he composed two credenzas to be added to this concerto, which Grosvenor included with seamless fluidity.
Young Grosvenor is a genuine virtuoso: running arpeggios with light, deft touch; effortlessly playing cross-handed; graceful and accurate without stage pretension of boasting showmanship. Grosvenor, who may be the greatest English pianist since John Ogdon, adorned the front cover of this January’s issue of Classical Music Magazine. Excitement flowed from Grosvenor’s fingers like discovering a fresh cool stream during a country hike. His choice of Moritz Moszkowski's Etude in A-flat Major, Op. 72, No. 11 (1903), for an encore was surprising delight.
The “Linz” symphony, Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, was composed in November of 1783, and it appears to recall happy pastoral memories. Written in Mozart’s favorite heroic key, it is usually considered the first of Mozart’s great symphonies; the second movement remains rich in melody, and a sunny mountain landscape sheds light throughout with delightfully comic conclusion. Of particular note is the use of “rocket” crescendos where violins swirl in upward, exploding scales, which were here performed with such immediacy that they were truly shocking geysers of sound, as if one were watching a meteor shower on mountain hillside. This symphony is a violinist’s dream. Concertmaster Krista Feeney excelled on her violin, one of sixteen violins (where in Mozart’s day there would have been only twelve violins). Although the repeating triplets in the last movement appear a trifle gimmicky, the exuberance of the violin playing carried the evening into bliss.
After the concert Benjamin amiably signed cds and chatted with audience members.