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Pianist trills, 'lion's roar' surprises at 'Mozart & More'

Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel has won numerous prizes in international competitions. [Courtesy of Gilles Vonsattel]
Published Jan. 24, 2016

TAMPA — Several Florida Orchestra concerts this year have offered contrasting works that together make a point. Michael Francis debuted as music director with Rachmaninoff and Aaron Copland, and just recently paired a Strauss waltz with the discordant Charivari of H.K. Gruber.

With Mozart & More, which opened Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Francis and the orchestra sandwiched a piano concerto and a symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart between Igor Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks concerto and a percussion composition by John Cage relying mostly on makeshift or primitive instruments.

Each of these pieces broke a mold or departed from conventional wisdom in some way.

The evening started with the 1938 work by Stravinsky, one of the 20th century's most influential composers. The Concerto for Chamber Orchestra in E-flat, or Dumbarton Oaks (named for the Washington, D.C., estate where the meetings that created the United Nations were held) is a 15-piece concerto in three movements. The 10 stringed instruments set an aggressive pace that is at once edgy and deferential to the baroque era Stravinsky wanted to honor.

All the musicians except for the cello and double bass stood to perform the piece, as if for an impromptu meeting. Two horns supported the strings while a single flute cut the other way, a kind of instrumental antiphony or counterpoint. The piece zigs and zags and races to an abrupt conclusion.

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A-major picks up from a turning point in the composer's life. Mozart was gaining in popularity in 1786, when he wrote the piece. A comparable growth in artistic confidence would lead to his most famous operas, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, but also a downturn in his health.

Visiting pianist Gilles Vonsattel led the concerto with unmistakable precision. A winner of numerous international awards and competitions, Vonsattel handed a gift-wrapped package to the audience directly from the 18th century. The piece starts with the delicate and playful runs you might identify with Mozart. The pace suddenly picks up in volume and force, and the strings join in.

The second movement stretches and expands, relaxes and contracts, like the breathing of some sea creature. At times, the near-silences dominated. Vonsattel hunched over the Steinway, coaxing whispered notes with one hand as the audience leaned forward in their seats. The next moment, the composition races forward again, then gathers up its themes and sub-themes into a closing argument.

The most unique offering of the evening was surely Cage's Third Construction for Four Percussion Players, a 1941 piece by a composer who found music in the sounds of everyday life. The 12-minute work makes use of log drums, cowbells, rattles, tin cans, a cricket caller, beer kegs, bottles of pills or beans and congas.

Its 24 cycles of 24 bars each are extremely difficult to play, with some percussionists playing five or six beats to a measure while another plays seven. Every so often, principal percussionist John Shaw sounded a conch shell, while percussionists Kurt Grissom or Dave Coash slid a damp cloth over a string embedded inside a drum – a groaning sound known as the "lion's roar."

The concert closes with Mozart's Symphony No. 39 (1788), in which the virtuoso's full range of genius is on display. A dissonance early in the first movement cuts like a blade; the tempo soon quickens. By the fourth and final movement, the strings are leading furiously or suddenly softening, the symphony about to conclude or just shifting gears. Every time you think you know where it's headed, Mozart pulls the rug out from under you.

The composer demands a lot out of orchestras, and so does Francis. It could be my imagination, but in his fourth month it is hard to listen to the orchestra without thinking that they are playing more cohesively than ever before. This evening is well worth attending, as Mozart & More unites the work of three ground-breaking musical minds in an energizing way.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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