Schnittke happened…as did Haydn and Beethoven at the Delaware Symphony Orchestra (DSO) final Chamber Series Concert of the 2017-18 season.
It’s doubtful if many (or any) in attendance had even heard of, much less witnessed, a performance of Alfred Schnittke’s witty Moz-Art a la Haydn. Written in 1977, the work appeared at a time when composers were moving away from the perceived elitism and dissonant sounds of modern atonality toward an expression that favored a synthesis of more familiar styles. The goal was to restore music to its former position as the language of emotions as they hoped to bridge the gap between themselves and the listening public.
Moz-Art a la Haydn is a prime example of Schnittke’s uncanny ability to fragment and reassemble diverse elements in novel and unexpected ways. Schnittke based the work, scored for two violin soloists (David Southorn and Peter Bahng) and a small ensemble, on Mozart’s unfinished pantomime music K 446. Also mentioned are the composer’s Symphony No. 40 and Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.
The work opens with the performers, seated in total darkness, improvising on the Mozart pantomime material. A diminished chord prepares for the introduction of neoclassical material. Familiar sounds and colors come and go, forcing the listener to try and make sense of it all. The 12-minute adventure ends as one violinist de-tunes her violin, the lights go out and the musicians shuffle off the stage one-by-one “a la Haydn,” leaving the conductor to beat time to absent music to an absent orchestra.
Speaking of Haydn, DSO principal cellist Philo Lee delivered a superb account of that composer’s C Major Cello Concerto — a piece that remained undiscovered for some 200 years until 1961. Virtuosity was in the forefront here, especially in the rapid passages of the finale, all dispatched with great precision and pinpoint intonation. Lee’s playing was further enhanced by a most sensitive use of dynamics and a rich, singing tone.
The upbeat program closed with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, which DSO Music Director David Amado noted was his favorite. Unfortunately, it is one of the least performed of the symphonies, having largely been overshadowed by his other monumental works, including its neighbors the Eroica and the famous Fifth.
The introductory Adagio was full of mystery, and the color of the string sound was rich. The Allegro vivace was full of fervor, and the accents dramatic and well-balanced. The slow movement, one of Beethoven’s most sublime, was clear and flowing, enhanced by heartfelt contributions from principal clarinetist Charles Salinger. After a very robust scherzo, the galvanizing finale was impressive, bringing the audience to its feet with enthusiastic and appreciative applause.