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The Heart of Valentine’s Day

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/14/2016 -  & February 11, 12, 13, 2016 (Cleveland)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453 – Symphony No. 34 in C Major, K. 338 – Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503
The Cleveland Orchestra, William Preucil (Concertmaster/Leader), Mitsuko Uchida (Piano/Conductor)

M. Uchida (© Julien Jourdes)

Call it an aural time-machine. When the Cleveland Orchestra comes to town, one expects a gorgeous panoply of percussion and brass, strings extended to the far walls, the entrance of the Concertmaster, and then the Austrian conductor to the usual applause.

Last night, the Cleveland Orchestra broke the rules. The first ensemble consisted of a few winds, the strings, and the Steinway with the cover down facing the orchestra. Instead of a conductor, out flew–almost literally–a spirit with a long diaphanous white shawl, standing at the piano facing to the orchestra, the shawl expanding like wings, while the orchestra began.

One thought originally of the back of a Raphael angel. But no, this was actually the back of a Chagall sprite, bouncing up and down from the seat, leading, playing–and turning Mozart into magic.

Mitsuko Uchida is not your everyday piano virtuoso. Rather than describing her difference (in effect, studying every single work of a composer before playing a single piece), it was her performance which even the least educated listener could understand as a kind of ideal.

Almost a Platonic ideal. With others, one might ask, “What would Mozart say?” With Ms. Uchida, one knows that Mozart would forbid anybody else to perform.

With the opening G Major Concerto, Ms. Uchida’s stunning piano runs were not as important as the interlacing of piano and orchestra. There was a spontaneity here, as though the oboes and horns had never heard the work before, but knew their calls and–thank you, Mozart!–most unlikely–duets were needed. Mozart’s own cadenza was played, as expected, with true joy.

The Cleveland Strings took over the second movement, but Ms. Uchida augmented the second half, giving way for a series of incredible variations for the finale. In a way, the entire Concerto was seamless, and, like Chagall, Ms. Uchida and the Cleveland Orchestra seemed to soar about the stage.

There was far more to come from the artist, but in between, William Preucil was to lead in a Mozart symphony. Mr. Preucil was known as one of the great chamber players before joining the Cleveland Orchestra as Concertmaster. Whatever the mental processes leading to this change, one knows that even this great orchestra can improve with such a virtuoso at the helm.

His “conducting” of Mozart’s rarely played 34th Symphony was hardly worth the name. He gave a few nods, a few downbeats, and then allowed the orchestra to go on its own. Like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, one admired the playing–which was most Classical, most fundamental–but one also felt that a dynamic conductor could have meliorated the dully perfect performance.

One exception: the final movement. Mozart had to have been in an ebullient mood here (perhaps because he was happily leaving Salzburg for Vienna). The opening bars could have been written by Vaughan Williams in his bucolic mood. The rest was like a danceable jig.

Ms. Uchida returned for a concerto which needs more than stamina. It must have that subliminal link which brings together tragedy and wit (as well as a theme which sounds like the opening of Marseillaise composed four years later). Ms. Uchida, playing her own cadenza, gave a performance of grandeur and sublimity for the first two movements. For the finale, she offered a bonus. The Cleveland Orchestra itself.

How she played so faultlessly and stood up to motion in trumpets and horns and timpani to punctuate her own work is a one of those miracles which can’t be explained.

And for those who didn’t have enough of Ms. Uchida (happily, she had the excellent taste to eschew an encore after this work), Tuesday she will be playing Berg and Schumann and others, almost certainly for our utter delight.

Harry Rolnick



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