Early Music Ensemble Takes Instructive Trek Through Mozart’s Time

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Kristian Bezuidenhout led Juilliard415 from the fortepiano. (Photos by Rachel Papo, courtesy Juilliard, NY)

NEW YORK — A hint of the didactic does not diminish the pleasures of a conservatory concert — rather the opposite. On Feb. 9, Juilliard415, the Juilliard School’s principal period-instrument ensemble, performed at Alice Tully Hall, which faces Broadway inside the Juilliard building. The superlative yet never preening keyboard artist Kristian Bezuidenhout, a guest member of the Juilliard faculty, conducted from the fortepiano, mostly as a part of the continuo but also as the evening’s soloist. While each musical selection was captivating in its own right, the pairings on either side of intermission made them more so. No formal themes were spelled out, yet the program as a whole suggested a cat’s cradle of cross reference. In short, for those who wished to, there were connections to make, correspondences to discover, things to learn. And isn’t learning a pleasure?

The first half juxtaposed the Overture to Olympie, VB 32, by Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-92) with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453. After the break, the Symphony in G minor, Op. 6, No. 6, of Johann Christian Bach (1735-82) raised the curtain on Mozart’s Symphony No. 27 in G major, K. 199/161b.

Juilliard415 is the Juilliard School’s principal period-instrument ensemble.

In his program note, Max Keller, who styles themself “a freelance writer specializing in the intersection of classical music and queerness,” teased out what some implications of these adjacencies might be. Happily they did so without forcing immaterial intersectionalities, seeming instead to read Bezuidenhout’s mind as they tied the curios back to Mozart’s well-known pièces de résistance. On the page and in the hall, the familiar thus emerged, historically and aesthetically, in a revealing new light. Somewhat less persuasively, Keller related the entire playlist to the Sturm und Drang movement — less persuasively, because as Keller themself emphasized, the Sturm und Drang movement was primarily a literary phenomenon. Still, the tempestuous properties of the music would be hard to deny.

Kraus, who although not Swedish by birth was sometimes called “the Swedish Mozart,” is one of the background figures of the era who deserves more time in the foreground, not unlike Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges, whose star is shining so brightly these days. The son of a French planter and an enslaved mother in Guadeloupe, Bologne was supposedly pushed aside, in his own time and later, because he was Black. But while he did encounter racism, notably in Paris, where he was on track to become director of the opera until a diva or two put up a fuss about taking marching orders from a Black man, Bologne made a major mark in his time, and so did Kraus, who was not Black. Learning of Kraus’ death, Haydn honored him as “one of greatest geniuses I have ever known,” a judgment that may in part reflect Kraus’ accomplishments as a writer.

The kaleidoscopic blend of timbres moment to moment, now somber, now aglow, now enameled, now translucent, made for consistently magnetic listening without ever tipping into affectation.

Written in D minor, the stern, darting Olympie overture harks back to the French Baroque style, bristling with dotted rhythms and tempo shifts that recall moods in Gluck as well as the overture to Mozart’s Idomeneo. From the keyboard, Bezuidenhout led with an electric hand, febrile fingers, and galvanic body language, frequently leaping to his feet. The elite ensemble of artists-in-training — too numerous for individual shout-outs, however deserved — included twice five first violins (each quintet deployed for one half of the program), twice four second violins, three violas, three cellos, one double bass, and two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and horns. Capturing the orchestral palette — the tang, the twang, the sheen, and the luster of the high-voiced instruments against the songfulness, on the one hand, and spring in the step of the low ones — would require the combined skills of poet and pedant. Suffice it to say that the kaleidoscopic blend of timbres moment to moment, now somber, now aglow, now enameled, now translucent, made for consistently magnetic listening without ever tipping into affectation; if the dynamic scale from piano to forte seemed narrow by comparison with the edge-of-silence-to-Armageddon characteristic of glossy big bands at full tilt, the field lay wide open for nuance in articulation and attack.

While for the second half of the concert Bezuidenhout chose a crunchier instrument, for the concerto he stuck with the more discreet one he had used in a continuo function in the Kraus. As such, it registered almost subliminally, more for the sake of time-keeping onstage than to project melody into the hall. At intermission, I overheard a complaint that the solo part had wanted power, but in the larger context of the program, Bezuidenhout’s strategy struck me as entirely deliberate, effecting not a competition between the keyboard and the ensemble but rather a dialogue within a circle of equals. And the subtle flowering of the keyboard material from out of the opening tutti justifies that arrangement precisely. That said, there was nothing recessive about Bezuidenhout’s shaping of the volatile second-movement Andante, with its touches of pathos. The sunny finale, too, felt just right. It’s said to be based on a motif Mozart taught (or was it learned from?) a pet starling he had purchased for 34 kreutzer. Was that a lot or not much for such a pet? I wish I knew.

Kristian Bezuidenhout presided over a program of music by Joseph Martin Kraus, Johann Christian Bach, and Mozart.

Kraus’ presence in the first part of the program positioned Mozart against the Classical style as practiced throughout Europe. In complementary fashion, the presence of “the London Bach,” to give J.C. his frequent sobriquet, pointed to the boy Mozart’s capacity to recognize the masters from whom he could learn. The boy was just eight years old when father Leopold trotted him off to London in pursuit of fame and fortune. That was in 1764, when Bach was pushing 30. Age disparity notwithstanding, Bach and Mozart made friends instantly and remained so until Bach’s death nearly two decades later, in 1782. “What a loss to the musical world,” Mozart wrote at the time.

Bach’s Symphony in G minor, Op. 6, No. 6, dates from 1770, anticipating the 17-year-old Mozart’s Little G minor Symphony No. 25, K. 183, by three years. Of all Mozart’s symphonies, only the Little G minor and the much later Great G minor Symphony No. 40, K. 550, are in a minor key — the very minor key of Bach’s Op. 6, No. 6, which possibly put a flea in Mozart’s ear. Keller’s note aptly characterizes the first movement of the Bach as “dark and moody” (the horns are heard, to commanding effect), the long second movement as “furtive,” and the third as “energetic,” notable for its “unresolved echo ending.” Bezuidenhout’s vigorous yet refined reading made an eloquent case for a composer who too often was relegated to a footnote.

The concluding Mozart selection, the Symphony No. 27, stood out especially for the silver splendor of the flutes in the second movement and a finale that keeps seesawing between fugato passages and a lusty dance — the acoustic avatar, if you will, of some print by Max Escher, composed of birds flying this way and fish swimming that way.