Mutter, down-sized Boston Symphony open season in a reflective mood with Mozart

October 01, 2011
By David Wright

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Mozart's Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 to open the Boston Symphony Orchestra season Friday night. Photo: Stu Rosner

In what must be one of the most unassuming opening-night galas in the history of symphony orchestras, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and a handful of Boston Symphony Orchestra players had the tuxedoed and gowned audience leaning forward in their seats to experience the genius of the teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Friday night at Symphony Hall.

Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 5, K. 216 and 219, were performed by 27 and 25 musicians respectively, counting the soloist/conductor.  Listeners seated upstairs had a rare opportunity to admire the finely varnished hardwood stage of Symphony Hall, three-quarters of which was visible, despite the luxurious spacing of chairs and music stands.

Each of these concertos ends not with a bang but with a little evaporating phrase, a musical question mark. That seemed appropriate for the current BSO situation, since the over-arching question forming a subtext to the season is what is the way forward after the departure of James Levine?

One could do a lot worse at such a moment than to spend an evening in Mozart’s company.  Mutter and the BSO musicians gave life to that statement on this most unusual of opening nights. Red-gowned, standing not in front of the orchestra but surrounded by it, Mutter “conducted” now and then with some arm gestures or by swaying to the music. But she was clearly happiest when putting the violin to her chin and leading by example, and the resulting  chamber-music feeling bloomed in the hall.

Composed over a span of just eight months in 1775 for the court at Salzburg, Mozart’s five violin concertos show a remarkable progress in intellectual and emotional depth.  In the Adagio of No. 3, the violinist’s entering figure is nothing but a slow major arpeggio of five notes — something any student learns in their  first year of lessons —  yet Mozart endows it with the power to make thousands of people collectively hold their breath.  That doesn’t happen in every performance — Mozart is the least “performance-proof” of composers — but it certainly did Friday night with Mutter as  solo protagonist.

Such moments multiplied throughout these performances, as soloist and orchestra responded to the composer’s sudden swerves in mood and tone color, which seem to reflect a short attention span, some Salzburgian sense of humor or both.  The sense of being “in the moment” was so strong during and between movements that the long interruption for late seating after the first movement of Concerto No. 3 felt like an even greater violation than usual. After two minutes of shuffling around in the seats, Mutter broke the tension with a comment from the stage that got quite a laugh in the front rows.  Moments later, that concerto’s Adagio had everyone, including the latecomers, spellbound.

In keeping with the reflective character of this concert, Mutter adopted an artless, self-effacing, Mozart-first approach to interpretation that barred egotistical gestures or willful shifts in tempo (except where Mozart indicated that in the score), while allowing for a natural flexibility over a steady beat.

Similarly, Mutter’s tonal palette was predominantly sweet—achingly, exquisitely so in many places—with a rich range of tone color.  It rose, with ease and without forcing, above the small orchestra.  One could wish for a harsher attack during the “Turkish” interruptions to the finale of Concerto No. 5, but maybe this wasn’t the night for that.

The BSO players embraced Mutter not only in the stage layout but with warm sound and counterpoint.  Mozart, who was often the soloist himself in these concertos, included occasional musical horseplay between the solo violin and a player in the band, and these moments were effectively highlighted in this performance.

Musicians listening to Mozart’s works often ask, “How does he do that?”  The goal in any performance of Mozart should be not to answer that question, but to get the listener to ask it.  In a season rich with questions for the Boston Symphony, that was, appropriately, the most prominent one Friday night.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Mozart’s violin concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4  Saturday at 8 p.m.; 617-266-1200.

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