Chamber Orchestra spotlights McGill and Mackey

If Mozart used Twitter

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto is a subdued piece as concertos go, with a noticeable shortage of passages that wow the audience with a display of the soloist's talent for razzmatazz. Mozart even omitted the cadenza— the traditional unaccompanied interlude in which the soloist gets to show off without any interruptions from the orchestra.

But this concerto also requires a soloist who understands the effects the composer hopes to create. The opening movement may move along at a moderate pace, within a narrow dynamic range, but it's packed with variety. One moment you may be watching the soloist's fingers dance across the keys, the next you may be listening to a lazy, drawn-out melody line. Good performers bring out the values in each section.

Anthony McGill's performance of the concerto with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia proved he is a musician who knows how to get the most out of every aspect of Mozart's vision, from the long line of the solemn, poignant slow movement to the lighter flow of the final rondo.

Mozart's operatic prism

McGill is a youngish Curtis graduate who's probably best known for his performance at President Obama's inauguration in 2008, but he has been the principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera for the past eight years. In the lively "Classical Conversation" that followed Sunday afternoon's performance, McGill emphasized the influence of opera on his understanding of Mozart's work.

McGill said his work with the Met has made him aware that Mozart is an opera composer— an insight McGill has applied to his extensive chamber music and solo appearances. In the clarinet concerto, for example, the sections for the different registers can be treated as a dialogue between the characters in an opera. The lower register could be a bass, the upper register a soprano.

McGill shared the post-concert conversation with the afternoon's other lion, composer Steven Mackey, whose new work Tonic received its world premiere during the second half.

Experiment in chords

Mackey has combined a career as a rock musician with a career as a composer whose work has been commissioned by major orchestras like the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and by performers like soprano Dawn Upshaw and violinist Leila Josefowicz. Tonic is a colorful, intensely dramatic work that reminded me of the orchestral suites Prokofiev arranged from his movie and ballet music. It evokes images and radiates the same kind of surface brightness.

In this case, however, the composer didn't compose the music for a dramatic work before he created a stand-alone orchestral version. Tonic moves steadily forward, from one dramatic moment to another, without reference to a particular story or a particular set of images on a screen.

It works so well as dramatic music that I was caught off guard when Mackey discussed it as an experiment in working with chords. Normally, when an orchestra creates a chord, all the instruments sound in balance. In Tonic, the instruments sound at different volumes, some loud and prominent and some softly adding shading. The composer can create a new effect by repeating the same notes while reversing the volumes.

Timpanist's workout

But Mackey also said he wanted the piece to be exciting and interesting. He succeeded on both counts. I would have welcomed a contrasting section as a relief from the dramatic tension, but overall Tonic is vivid, musically inventive and fascinating.

For timpanist Martha Hitchins, Tonic constituted a marathon workout. The timpani resound through most of Tonic's 25 minutes. Her drums formed the foundation of the chords and underlined the sense of drama.

During the discussion, Mackey noted that he had trouble composing the timpani part. He kept thinking he could only achieve his aims with eight drums, instead of the four or five that the timpanist usually commands. Hitchins learned of his problem via a tweet, and the two of them collaborated on her part, with Hitchins working out approaches that fulfilled Mackey's intentions without the extra instruments.

Who knows what Mozart might have accomplished if he could have tweeted Anton Stadler, the Viennese clarinetist for whom he wrote the clarinet concerto?♦

To read a response, click here.

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