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Books create fairylands with words and pictures. Mozart does it with music, like the quartet for flute and strings that opened Dolce Suono’s latest concert.
I don’t read fantasy, even though I read science fiction. People who read fantasy often think that’s odd, but to me it’s perfectly reasonable. I’m willing to read stories about extraterrestrials and superintelligent robots because I think they’re real possibilities. I don’t read fantasy because I haven’t believed in elves, witches, and magicians since I was in the third grade.
But there’s a deeper reason why fantasy doesn’t attract me. I don’t need it. Music presents me with all the moods and enchantments fantasy offers its readers.
Into the woods
The first movement of Mozart’s quartet moved into that realm of enchantment with the clear, silvery thread of Mimi Stillman’s flute and exchanges between the three strings. Musicologists might describe the movement in more technical terms, but words like gallantry and grace describe the way I hear it. The slow second movement painted a dreamier, bucolic scene and the third movement rondeau added exuberance to its overall grace. Nobody does fairyland like Mozart.
Stillman made an interesting suggestion when she introduced the second item on the program, Mozart’s great quintet for clarinet and string quartet. She suggested we listen to the quintet with an “18th-century ear” as well as a “21st-century ear." As she explained, the string quartet was a new form in Mozart’s day. Audiences didn’t have the expectations they’ve developed over the last couple of centuries. You could say the same thing about the clarinet. Mozart combined a new type of ensemble with a new instrument.
Nowadays, we tend to hear the Clarinet Quintet as a miniature concerto, the string quartet supporting a star soloist. That’s a natural attitude when the clarinetist is a genuine star like Dolce Suono’s guest: the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal clarinet, Ricardo Morales. But the quintet becomes more of an ensemble piece if you activate your 18th-century ear. First violinist Amy Oshiro-Morales produced some of the quintet’s most beautiful moments; there are important interludes in which the whole string quartet plays without the clarinet. Mozart experiments with contrasts and blends as the clarinet casts an autumnal aura over the whole landscape.
This was an almost-all-Mozart program: three pieces by Mozart, followed by a tango by the Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla. The third Mozart was an arrangement of a piece originally composed for piano and wind quartet. Stillman produced an arrangement with two string parts based on a 19th-century arrangement for strings. Kerri Ryan’s viola and Arlen Hlusko's cello substituted for the horn and bassoon Mozart specified in the original version.
As an arrangement, it wasn’t totally successful. Occasionally the score obviously called for a full blast from four winds. But you can’t complain much when a piece includes Charles Abramovic’s sensitive piano touch and performances by two wind masters like Stillman and Morales.
Piazzolla’s “Libertango” brought all the performers on stage and ended the evening with a big, short finale that moved the concert into a different kind of fantasyland. Piazzolla’s world is more sensuous than Mozart’s, but just as enchanted.
March 21 happens to be Bach’s birthday, so Stillman preceded the tango with a piece that wasn’t listed in the program: the first movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto. Morales maintained a minimal role, since the piece was composed before the clarinet was invented. He didn’t seem to mind and spent most of the piece smiling as his younger partners produced the rush of Bachian vitality that surrounded him.
What, When, Where
Mozart Woodwind Masterpieces. Mimi Stillman, flute; Ricardo Morales, clarinet; Amy Oshiro, violin; William Polk, violin; Kerri Ryan, viola; Arlen Hlusko, cello; Charles Abramovic, piano; Mimi Stillman, artistic director. Dolce Suono Ensemble. Mozart, Clarinet Quintet in A Major, Flute Quartet in D Major, Quintet for Piano and Winds (arrangement by Dolce Suono Ensemble). Piazzolla "Libertango." March 21, 2017, at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, 2212 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. (267) 252-1803 or dolcesuono.com.
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