Santa Fe Pro Musica’s second concert of the season featured familiar faces — music director Thomas O’Connor and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott — in relatively new and absolutely new roles, respectively.
O’Connor traded in his oboe for the baton several years ago, while McDermott has just taken up conducting from the keyboard in Classical-era piano concertos. The results were intriguing, as newbie McDermott drew high-quality playing from the orchestra in two piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The concert opened with O’Connor’s energetic, rough-edged performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C Major. It was commissioned in 1788 by a French nobleman, the Comte d’Ogny, thanks to the success of the composer’s six earlier Paris Symphonies.
O’Connor’s conducting concept seemed to be more closely allied with the weightier dramatics of middle-period Beethoven. This symphony has its share of drama, to be sure, but there were too many problems in execution to make the Pro Musica’s performance of it a success.
The cellos and basses dominated the string tone, making it thick and heavy, obscuring much of what the middle strings had to say. The horns and trumpets overbalanced the rest of the group in many of the louder passages. Problems of intonation and togetherness plagued the first violins in some of their solo passages. Quieter and more delicate passages weren’t delicate enough to contrast with the more extroverted music.
Haydn was a first-rate musical jokester, and this symphony contains one of the best examples: What sounds like the final chords are followed by four measures of silence, intended to incite applause but then interrupted by more music. Unfortunately for humor lovers, it misfired here when the body language of the conductor and players failed to prompt an ovation.
Despite much top-flight playing by the woodwinds (especially principal flute Carol Redman and principal oboe Kevin Vigneau), this was a disappointing rendition of an unjustly neglected masterpiece.
Fortunately, matters improved a great deal for the orchestra as led by McDermott in two Mozart piano concertos. As combined with her stylish, thoughtful, and often joyous keyboard work, McDermott’s contributions to the program offered solid enjoyment.
Mozart composed the first, the Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, in 1784 for one of his students, Maria Anna Barbara von Ployer, a clearly gifted pianist who only performed in private concerts held at her home. The instrumentation reflects these intimate circumstances, with just two oboes and two horns playing very much a subordinate role to the strings.
The result is a transparent texture that was rendered with greater success by the orchestra. The string sections were in much better balance with each other and McDermott’s more relaxed (but not sluggish) tempos highlighted the song-like aspects of Mozart’s writing.
Written about 18 months later, the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major is at the other end of Mozart’s scale — a grandly conceived piece that requires virtuoso technique by the soloist and showcases the playing of the much larger section of winds and brass.
McDermott’s solo playing was exemplary, “like oil,” as Mozart described his ideal, but never mechanical, with variety and ingenuity throughout. She also achieved better orchestral balances here, with more restrained brass playing and eloquent contributions from the clarinets, used here by Mozart for the first time in a piano concerto.
The second movement, marked andante (flowing), was especially impactful. It’s dominated by the color of muted violins and by themes that touch deep emotions. It generated the kind of perfect silence that occurs when an audience is fully engaged, an echo of its reception at its world premiere when the audience demanded that the entire movement be encored before moving to the finale.