Music review: Austin Symphony Orchestra’s “Mozart Speaks” a clever show

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance critic Luke Quinton.)

By today’s standards, it seems Mozart was an unredeemable goofball.

At the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s season opening concert this weekend at the Long Center, the great composer’s letter to his sister began the show, read aloud by Austin actor Martin Burke.

“My Dear Sister,” Mozart letters intones again and again, in a writing style that’s chock full of wordplay, pet names and stretches resembling stream-of-consciousness. It’s endearing, slightly charming and a couple of centuries later, rather annoying.

Yet here’s the thing —  hearing the letters read aloud also links us closer to the composer’s music. When the symphony begins to play a corresponding overture, it comes to dawn on us that the way Mozart repeats the phrase to his sister, is much like a musical motif. It appears, disappears and reappears in the text in unconventional places.

This was an original program, conceived by the Austin Symphony and music director Peter Bay, and each letter was well selected for its particular purpose, usually highlighting a particular musical idea, or merely a bit of Mozart’s character. (In likewise original move for the ASO, Saturday’s concert was livestreamed.)

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Saturday’s concert was livestreamed on Facebook Live.

In one letter he remarks that he’s busy composing a piece of music he expects will sound “Turkish,” and then the ASO plays the exact piece, in the fun, boisterous spirit Mozart was giddily hoping for.

Occasionally, Burke flubbed a line, and in some especially exposed selections the strings sounded unusually cautious.

But “Mozart Speaks,” was a clever mix of audience education and general entertainment. Now, for next time, how about a touch more stagecraft? A spotlight on the actor for starters. A costume and powdered wig? Or perhaps that’s a twig too far.

The final letter of “Mozart Speaks” was more serious. The composer contemplating the musical life, and his peculiar talents.

It was a considered lead-in to the second half, a performance of Mozart’s Requiem mass.

Despite its complicated pedigree (the composer died before finishing it), Mozart’s Requiem has moments with a special power.

Bay and the ASO gave a gorgeously dark opening, and when Chorus Austin’s mass of singers stood, they moved like trained soldiers.

The choir belted out entries with a spine-tingling intensity. Chorus Austin were quite flawless as Bay elicited from them an array of dramatic colours.

It’s a long work, which fell flat in stretches, but was ultimately redeemed by some very nice performances. The four soloists, Stefanie Moore, Laura Mercado-Wright, Paul D’arcy and Cameron Beauchamp blended nicely, notably Moore and Mercado-Wright, who found a striking balance. Mercado-Wright’s mezzo-soprano clearly had room to spare.

Mozart’s Requiem is still a lasting love letter to death.

austinsymphony.org


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