Pianist John Orlando
“The music of angels and heaven” rapturously exclaimed one enthusiastic patron, fortunate to attend the opening of Distinguished Artist’s Mozart Festival “Rekindling the Spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.”Judging from the smiles, wild applause and comments I overheard during intermission it is obvious that at least the vast majority of the near capacity crowd that filled the new Cabrillo College Music and Recital Hall had the same opinion.
As a musician and dedicated patron of the performing arts, one learns to distinguish between those moments calling for astuteness and nit-picking comment, and those where all the elements of a fine evening’s music making conjoin to say “cool it” and give your left brain critic a vacation on this one,for it’s time to just sit back and enjoy the ride. This was one of those evenings served up by a group of some of our most talented local Bay Area musicians performing the most cherished classical repertoire embodying a perfect balance of exquisite melody, emotional contrast and depth, unobtrusive harmonic and contrapuntal mastery and always the impeccable a sense of form — like watching a fine gymnast– that can only be the music of Mozart, the featured composer of the series.
The program got off to a wonderful start with Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture played by the San Francisco Sinfonietta under the direction of Swiss born director, Leonhardt Steiner. From the beginning it was clear that this was not to be a “stuff-shirted” evening of classical music, appropriate to the ribald humor of its featured composer. Maestro Steiner, seeking to summon audience enthusiasm like a stand-up comic, both endeared himself and challenged the audience to more enthusiastic ovation and applause and then with tousled combed back hair, loose fitting “Groucho Marx” tux, he tongue-in-cheek implored the audience to overlook and forgive the fact that he had forgotten to bring his shoes. As soon as he began conducting I can only assume from my response that everyone immediately looked to his feet, but hopefully not the orchestra.
The Don Giovanni overture got off to a somewhat tenuous start with only a few exculpatory “cracked” notes from the French horn (I think that many of us who have attended numerous local orchestra performances have grown accustomed to expect such unintended moments. In fact, they seem to add an element of unexpected spontaneity to an otherwise scripted orchestral performance — whether this should be the case or not, I will leave discussion for another time). Suffice it to say that an opening piece in any program allows the audience to set expectations accordingly and the performance of the Don Giovanni overture set mine to above-average-satisfactory with the assurance that the orchestra was up to the task of conjuring a wonderful evening of Mozart’s music.
Next up to play, all decked out in tuxedo with white tie, was the festiva’s impresario and director of the prestigious Distinguished Artists series, Santa Cruz’s own John Orlando.
When pianists are asked who is the most difficult composer to play most will immediately say Mozart. This is not because they represent an athletic challenge of the likes of say a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, but more because of the transparency of Mozart’s piano writing which exposes the pianist to naked scrutiny regarding the shaping of each phrase and the evenness of each note. Since all of this has to be done with an appearance of effortlessness, Mozart is not a flashy composer and the performance of his music is fraught with peril hardly commensurate with the level of audience appreciation.
This evening John Orlando seemed to have mastered the many technical and interpretive challenges of Mozart’s most famous 20th piano concerto of “Amadeus” fame (from the movie with the fictionalized criticism of Emperor Joseph II, seeking to demonstrate his musical astuteness with the remark that there are simply too many notes.) Of course, subsequent generations have learned that Mozart’s music, on the contrary, has precisely the right number of notes – notes that seem to cascade from the piano in gliding melismas of pearly sound adroitly navigated by John Orlando. The limpid transparent fluency we heard on this occasion tended to divert our attention from some minor barely noticeable coordination of tempi and dynamics between the orchestra and soloist.
Despite the fact that we would have preferred hearing more sound from the piano, at least two people wondered whether the piano was voiced brightly enough. John Orlando exhibited thorough control and mastery of Mozart’s great D Minor Piano Concerto and deserved the wild enthusiastic response from predisposed and discerning patrons.
Along with many others, I have come to appreciate how much John Orlando has added to the rich cultural life of Santa Cruz community of music lovers through his Distinguished Artists Series and many other cultural ventures including this new, hopefully annual, Mozart Festival Series. He also spearheaded the raising of funds for the purchase of the new 9 foot Steinway that he had the opportunity of playing for the first time at these concerts.
After intermission, another Santa Cruz artiste, Michele Rivard, head of Cabrillo’s distinguished music faculty and a frequent guest soloist, gave a thrilling and exuberantly virtuosic rendering of Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate for soloist and orchestra, which concludes with the famous Alleluia. This work, masterfully rendered by Ms. Rivard, is famous for its range of emotional depth as well as its many challenging wide skips that at times span close to two octaves.
The program concluded with an engaging performance of Symphony No. 38, the Prague Symphony, complete with the slow introduction and the lengthy repeats that many recorded versions ignore. Anyone who has visited the charming city of Prague could not have missed the importance of Mozart to this beautifully preserved old European city of spires, bridges and the famous town clock. From marionette theaters performing the Magic flute to historical buildings where Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was a tremendous success, as well as in concert halls where Mozartâ€™s opera The Marriage of Figaro was produced in 1786, Mozart still fills the air in Prague. Although his popularity tended to wax and wane in his own hometown of Vienna, the people of Prague always offered to the composer an enthusiastic welcome. In appreciation, Mozart wrote this 38th of a total of 40 symphonies of his maturity in appreciation to the people of Prague.
So far, we don’t know whether Santa Cruz’s mini Mozart Festival will become an annual event. Such high cultural endeavors are always costly. As we grow older and come to recognize the cost and value of such experiences, I and several others, find ourselves leafing through to “special thanks” or “patron’s pages where we can appreciate the number of businesses and individuals who thankfully consistently show willingness to contribute to the arts of our community so the rest of us can simply pay the modest price of admission and enjoy the spectacle. Hopefully, after breaking ground with a successful first Mozart series, and if this is to continue, John and his board (which I think only consists of John) will be able to raise more funds from generous donors to keep this wonderful cultural event happening for years to come.
The following Sunday afternoon I attended the second program of the series. It opened with a series of five charming arias beautifully sung by Michelle Rivard and bass-baritone Rolfe Dau, a last minute substitute for the scheduled baritone.
The featured soloist on this program was Laura Albers playing the violin concerto in D Major. As to her playing. all I can say is, move over Hillary Hahn and make room for Laura for she is every inch a master. It brought to mind that Mozart was also an accomplished violinist and fully exploited its potential in this concerto. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d really like to hear more of Laura. She has been playing the violin since the age of two and performs with her two sisters in the Albers Trio. I hope that we will have the opportunity of hearing Laura and perhaps her trio. I noticed in the notes that she performs in the Cabrillo Festival orchestra — perhaps Marin will consider featuring her or her trio future venues.
The program again ended with the San Francisco Sinfonietta performing Mozart’s Prague Symphony.Â If I had any reservations as to the caliber of this fine chamber orchestra and its warmly personable director Urs Leonhardt Steiner, they were dispelled during this second rendering of Mozart’s masterpiece. At first, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy hearing it the following day, but as it turned out it was played so wonderfully that I felt comfortably embraced by the celestial harmonies of Mozart. I fully understood John Orlando who several years ago when I asked him, if you had only one composer to take with you to the hereafter, who would it be? His reply was “Mozart.”
Michael Tierra is a bio–herbalist, acupuncturist, author, teacher, musician, classical pianist, singer and father of concert pianist Chetan Tierra, a recent concerto soloist with the Santa Cruz Symphony.