Mozart with differences: Fraser Beath McEwing report from New York

April 21, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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My reviews usually come from the Sydney Opera House but this time I’m reporting from Carnegie Hall in New York on a J-Wire special assignment.

Sir Roger Norrington

An all-Mozart program was presented by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s – not an English orchestra as one might expect but a distinguished American one that has been going since 1974. However, both the conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, and piano soloist, Benjamin Grosvenor, were English.

Carnegie Hall holds 2804 people and for this concert it was almost full. I bought a well-priced seat in a box, thinking this was terribly classy until I found myself seated at the end of the second level on a red velvet highchair virtually hanging over the stage. This turned out to be an unexpected advantage because I could closely observe the goings on of a very unusual (by SSO standards anyway) concert.

The programme comprised two Mozart symphonies, numbers 33 and 36, and the piano concerto No. 20 in D Minor. The orchestra was typically Mozartian-light, with only strings, two oboes, two horns, two bassoons and timpani. Bull fiddle count was four.

Not too steady on his pegs, Sir Roger toddled on to the historic stage and climbed a high set podium where he sat on a swivel office chair overlooking his players who were all on stage floor level. He picked up a microphone and chatted amiably to the audience about how 18th Century music lovers came to concerts to have fun, and that included applauding whenever they jolly well felt like it.

“The two best things that have ever happened,” he said, “are sex and the 18th Century.”

Benjamin Grosvenor

From that point on, this became an informal concert, with applause after every movement and a few claps in the middle. The playing was nevertheless superb, aided by the astonishing acoustics of Carnegie Hall, which is shaped like the inside of an egg and has no sound deflections. I could pick up tone and nuances that would be denied to me in Sydney.

After the first Mozart symphony, a Steinway Model D was wheeled in for the piano concerto as Sir Roger’s podium was upended and wheeled out. Instead of side on to the hall, the piano, with its lid missing, was nosed into the middle of the orchestra, obliging the pianist to play with his back to the audience. From my perch I had an unexpected keyboard view and I appreciated the unusual placement of the piano because it became part of the orchestral blend.

Sir Roger reappeared with young Benjamin Grosvenor – the best pianist to come out of England for the last 50 years. Benjamin sat down at his end of the piano while Sir Roger positioned himself at the other – where the removalists had placed his swivel office chair. At no time during the concert did he refer to a score or use a baton. He might have been sitting in his garden waving to passing friends, but the music he extracted from the St Luke’s players was masterful.

The Mozart piano concerto was spectacular, actually too much so, in my opinion. Benjamin Grosvenor’s technique enabled him to play Mozart at warp-speed. While the crowd loved it, I would have preferred a little less rush and a little more articulation, particularly in the third movement where he nearly melted the Steinway.

More furniture removal and Sir Roger’s podium and chair were reinstated for Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, “Linz” which Wolfgang Amadeus is said to have knocked up in a couple of days to make a concert deadline. It showed no sign of being hastily put together and the way the orchestra played it with sensitivity and verve made a fitting end to a memorable concert.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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