Santa Fe Pro Musica music director Thomas O’Connor will find himself in an unusual spot during much of the group’s upcoming Mozart and Haydn concert — backstage in the green room, perhaps, or watching from the wings, after having conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 to open the program.
O’Connor, who’s retiring from his post after the group’s May concerts, isn’t trying to sneak out early. He’s just sharing the responsibility with Anne-Marie McDermott, who plays soloist and conductor for two Mozart piano concertos, numbers 14 and 22.
McDermott has been a frequent guest performer with Pro Musica and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and longtime fans may be surprised to find her conducting from the keyboard as well as playing, just as Mozart did back when he premiered these concertos himself.
“The first time I conducted and played at the same time was last winter, in Colorado Springs,” she says. “I went back and forth on whether I needed to study conducting beforehand, but several colleagues said that it would be a natural extension of the communication we already do in chamber music, and they were right.”
On paper, playing these two concertos on the same program looks like a recipe for repetition. They were written just over a year apart and were composed in the same key, E-flat major. How different could they possibly be?
McDermott is happy to tell you that the answer is, quite a lot. “I love pairing these two concertos,” she says, “because the profound growth in how Mozart uses the orchestra is so striking when you hear them back to back. The first one is more classical, more intimate, with an orchestra that’s just strings, two oboes, and two horns. Mozart even said that it could be performed successfully without the winds at all.”
The other, No. 22, was the first time Mozart used the recently invented clarinet in a piano concerto, and he was clearly inspired by the new sonorities it offered to create a bigger and more dramatic piece. “It’s a real showcase for the winds,” McDermott explains. “It’s just miraculous how he uses the flute, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in different combinations.
“The soloist’s music is also the most difficult of all the Mozart concertos. When I first started learning it a few years ago, I remember thinking, ‘This is really challenging.’ It has all these running 16th notes and very chromatic writing. Absolutely brilliant.”
Haydn wrote his 90th symphony in 1788 on commission from a French nobleman, the Comte d’Ogny, who was a military officer, arts patron, and cellist. The composer, who had never been to France at that point, somehow perfectly captured the soon-to-vanish brilliance of Louis XVI’s court at Versailles in the work’s third movement, a menuet galante in which naturalness and grace were seamlessly fused.
For reasons difficult to fathom, this excellent piece is one of the least-played Haydn symphonies. Part of the problem is that it lacks a catchy nickname. The best anyone’s come up with so far is The Letter R Symphony, so there’s clearly room for improvement. (“R” came from a now-discarded system of categorizing Haydn’s music.)
“This symphony embodies the ideals of classicism in a pure and unadulterated form,” says O’Connor. “Balance, clarity, and transparency, and perfect proportions are all on display.
“It also reflects Haydn’s nature. He was calm and happy but had a wicked sense of humor. He delights in misleading his audiences, only to pull the rug out from under them, all for a good laugh. Let that be a warning!”
No spoilers here about what’s in store with this symphony. But it does contain a little something that could be used to coin the nickname that will rescue it from obscurity. Have at it, Pro Musica audiences! ◀
▼ Mozart and Haydn: Musical Conversations
▼ Presented by Santa Fe Pro Musica
▼ 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3 (free pre-concert talks one hour before each performance)
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.