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Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
06/19/2015 -  & June 20, 2015
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 26, K. 537, “Coronation”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral”

Jan Lisiecki (piano), Arianna Zukerman (soprano), Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano), Gordon Gietz (tenor), Robert Gleadow (bass)
Ottawa Choral Society, Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Ottawa Festival Chorus, Duain Wolfe (chorus master), Laurence Ewashko (assistant chorus master), National Arts Centre Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman (conductor)

We’re down to the wire: the final pair of concerts by Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) under the baton of outgoing music director, Pinchas Zukerman. And it was quite an evening, presenting late works by Mozart and Beethoven which, in different ways, are a fantastic challenge to all – orchestra, conductor and guest soloists. On Friday evening’s performance these challenges were met superbly, generating an experience of spectacular music making which will be equally well remembered by the sold out audience and the musicians themselves.

Mozart’s “Coronation” Piano Concerto is his second last such work, a concerto of glittering lyricism, ever inventive dialogue, and a deceptive simplicity which may explain why it is performed infrequently. The Concerto was composed to honor the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, though it failed to gain the regal attention and lucrative contacts Mozart had expected. However, more than two centuries later it proved a wonderful vehicle for Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki who, at twenty, is a veteran performer and recording artist for Deutsche Grammophon. Lisiecki’s playing demonstrates a beautifully inflected grasp of Mozart’s writing which is open and expressive, though never aggressive or over projected, yet always projected nicely over NACO’s players. He is a born Mozart player who brings pearlescent scaling to the music’s phrasing and ornamentation, while further maintaining a solid grasp of the music’s rhythm and structure. Lisiecki brought this comprehension even to the first movement cadenza, with its initial nervous figuration, then delivered further illumination to the simple melodies of the second movement and the elegant dialogues of the final one. The New York Times has stated he is “a pianist who makes every note count”, and he achieves this without ever being academic, pedantic or forced.

Throughout, Zukerman and NACO supported Lisiecki with a cocoon of comfortable warmth, while retaining clarity and transparency. This was an exceptional, very fine performance of a Mozart concerto which deserves to be heard more often.

Then, after intermission, it was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a work of colossal scope and imagination which, more than anything else composed during the early 19th century, became an immediate apogee of classical symphonic music. Beethoven here pushed his ambition to limits even he never previously dared. Effectively, he reinvented the entire concept of a conventional symphony, and the larger scale symphonies of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler would not exist without Beethoven’s No. 9 which became a template for all three composers.

The use of vocal soloists and a huge chorus was unprecedented, though the incorporation and adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy is a masterstroke of witty genius, alluding to comic opera as well as religious choral works at their most grandiose. As well, placing the Scherzo movement immediately after the first movement and before an extended slow one also was radical, though this modification was quickly embraced by subsequent composers, including Chopin who used it for his two mature piano Sonatas as well as his late Sonata for piano and cello, and Bruckner in his own Symphony No. 9 which Zukerman and NACO performed brilliantly a week ago.

In this instance, Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing. The constant, enervated chattering in the second movement, Molto vivace – Presto, is a very different kind of tension from the more formal, dramatic opening movement. And even more significantly, it provides a brilliant glimpse of the far more elaborate dialogues which emerge during the final movement when singers and chorus join the ensemble.

Zukerman, his players and guests (including his daughter Arianna Zukerman, who was soprano soloist) delivered a truly fantastic performance characterized by unrelenting rhythmic tension and constantly building passion. The slow movement was perhaps a tad perfunctory and seemed rushed in mood, if not actual tempo, though the parallels to Mahler’s fluid, pastoral lyricism decades later did come across. If the dissonant opening of the final movement might have been even more explosive, conductor and performers soon were back on track, and this unique performance of a unique work unfolded with genuine mastery. Baritone Robert Gleadow brought confidence and the right hint of humor to his first recitative, “O friends --- not these sounds!”, and soon the singers and chorus were at the center of everything. All four soloists projected well and were well matched for their celebrated quartet. Choristers, at stage rear, also projected wonderfully well and sang superbly.

When this glorious performance ended, the response was a thunderous ovation which had been well earned, as well as a salute to Zukerman, a musician who has grown significantly during his 16 year tenure with NACO and has generated parallel growth for the orchestra concurrently.

Bravo! – job well done.

Charles Pope Jr.



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