There seemed to me two connecting themes in the weekend’s concerts: “Austria is very grand” and “it’s all about me … and about you.”
We heard Mozart’s Concerto No. #22 in E-flat major, a work that is both one of his later piano concertos and one of his major Vienna works, composed in 1785. Then we took an Alpine hike in the form of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie.
The combined experience was very like finding oneself teleported to the center of Vienna in time for a concert, taking a short nap, and then wandering out into the countryside for a full day, only to wander back into town by nightfall.
Actually, I haven’t had the good fortune to visit Vienna, so I can’t attest to what that city sounds like. In my mind though, it sounds like a Mozart concerto.
Specifically, it sounds like a concerto from the soundtrack to Amadeus — the movie version of which came out in 1984. I listened to little classical music early in my life, but my college freshman year roommate Debbie was an accomplished singer with a collection of classical tapes. When the movie came out we all went, and we loved it. We listened to the soundtrack while doing problem sets and studying. I attribute it to any success I had in my courses that year.
The third movement of the Piano Concerto No. #22 happens to be on that soundtrack (disc 2, track 1 for those following at home). It’s quite Mozart-y, with a regal aspect in the opening and lots of filigrees of notes, particularly on the part of the pianist. Thanks to the PSO’s program notes I now know that “Mozart composed his late piano concertos to display his own virtuosity, which was considerable.”
Yet as much as the piano solo may seem a little show-offish (the “all about me” element I mentioned), the whole work is rich, complicated, and well-structured. I would describe it as a “play-think-play” sandwich. The opening movement is whimsical, light, intricate, full of theme and variation with the piano exploring ideas and alternatives — playful. The second movement is slow and moving, maybe a little sad but more expressive — thoughtful. The third movement returns to the playful style, but with some of the thoughtfulness of the second movement swirled in — like the bottom part of a sandwich where the filling has soaked into the bread and flavored it.
Wikipedia says this concerto is “slightly less popular” than the other two composed the same year, but those of us who heard it performed by Jonathan Biss and the PSO enjoyed it very much. Mr. Biss struck me as a virtuoso who remains focused on the music, not on showmanship. In other words, the performance was all about us, the audience.
Although I haven’t (yet) visited Vienna, just about a decade ago I did spend a few days in a small town in Austria, hiking around the mountains with friends and enjoying the city life at night. On our hikes we saw cows and goats, enjoyed the delicate beauty of tiny alpine flowers and the majestic splendor of mountain peaks, watched glaciers move glacially, and were overtaken quite suddenly by a huge thunderstorm.
I haven’t thought of that trip in some time, but Eine Alpensinfonie brought it all back with exquisite clarity.
Fifty-one minutes of tone-poem disguised as symphony has to fall under the label of “self-indulgent” — all the more so when the score calls for 90-some instruments. As someone sitting near me pointed out, “There aren’t many orchestras who could pull this off.”
But as much as this might seem a personal flight of fancy for Strauss, it was a crowd-pleaser in Pittsburgh. As my mother put it, “In 51 minutes, you could sit and watch a brainless sitcom, or you could come to the Symphony and take a daytrip to Austria.”
Coming into the evening, I hadn’t known quite what to expect from this work, but I found that it left me both happy to have heard it and longing to go back to Europe, to travel with friends, wander the Alps, and rediscover the source of this striking music.
(Photo credit: “Austria ’04” by Jaume Meneses)