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A Stylistic Bear Hug for Beethoven and Mozart: The Quad City Symphony Orchestra, November 3 at the Adler Theatre PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Thursday, 15 November 2012 05:30

When the Quad City Symphony unveiled its versions of Mozart and Beethoven at the Adler Theatre on November 3, it stripped away the formalism of the Classical period and replaced it with the sensuality of mid-19th Century Romanticism. That approach by Conductor and Music Director Mark Russell Smith enhanced the literary thread that connected the five movements of Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” and the orchestra’s consistently warm and expressive performance made both composers’ music more satisfying.

Even though Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and Concerto for Clarinet (both composed in 1791) are paramount examples of Classical form, and Beethoven’s 1808 Symphony No. 6 is a harbinger of the early Romantic movement, Smith had the orchestra perform with nuance beyond the scores – applying practices largely developed after these pieces were written.

He updated Beethoven by directing the orchestra to change the indicated tempos, stretching – slowing down and accelerating – the rhythmic flow of the melodies. The tempo changes also heightened dramatic elements of transitional sections, creating more effusive emotional content; Smith’s decision in the second movement (“Scene by a Brook”) to slow the orchestra almost to a halt allowed the bird imitations in the solo flute, oboe, and clarinet to be more random – as in nature – making the scene calming and, for me, more realistic.

The conductor colored melodic passages by having players put pressure on specific notes to tell the symphony’s story in musically lifelike detail. In the muted beginning of “Brook,” the strings’ undulating dynamics reflected Beethoven’s depiction of flowing water – one of several examples of tone-painting. Smith furthered this effect by matching crescendos and diminuendos with the rise and fall of the melodic lines, highlighting the ebb and flow of the brook. In the “Storm” movement, the meaning of the music was clear in the emphasis the players put into the lightning strikes in the timpani, thunder in the basses and cellos, and wind in the chromatic notes of the piccolo.

Smith’s treatment of Mozart was similar, minus the pastoral sonic mimicry in the Beethoven symphony. Without an indication in the score, most phrases were played with marked contrasts – louder and softer, inhaling and exhaling, swelling and relaxing – that might be marginally appropriate for Beethoven’s programmatic description of nature but are stylistically incongruent for Classical Mozart, especially in the slow second movement of his concerto. There, the tempo became elastic, holding on to some notes out of tempo and thus allowing for a fuller dramatic expression of solo clarinetist Burt Hara’s soulful tone. The rhythmic expansion gave room for more stylized arpeggiations and articulated phrases as well as quiet, compelling sensitivity through the gorgeous linear melodies. The modernization of both Mozart pieces made their performances more alive, persuasive, and – in the case of the concerto – dreamy, directing my attention to the artistry of soloist and outlining the musical architecture.

But the most impressive aspect of the concert was the orchestra’s ability to convert Smith’s flexible, expansive vision into a disciplined performance that embraced the beautifully contradictory character of Beethoven’s music – supple yet strong – in a big bear hug. In the slow movement of the symphony, the woodwind timbres were veiled and pensive, drawing your ear into their musical conversation. The flute and oboe were a musical pas de deux of agreeable sound, moving together ... apart ... mirroring ... together again. The finale was full and rich with an enveloping warmth.

The stylistic approach also produced clarity; imitations of melodic fragments didn’t interrupt each other but swelled and abated, allowing the smooth passing of musical ideas between entrances throughout the concert. The arpeggiated figures in the principal winds were shaped into graceful gestures that ornamented the melodic lines from other instruments flowing through them. These exchanges demonstrated the orchestra’s grasp of Romantic style characteristics and consistent management of both large phrases and the musical pieces that interacted within them.

Players changed the color of their sounds as the character of the music moved from one emotional expression to another, from one movement to another. In Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the horns were clear and relaxed in the first movement, hard and edgy in the exciting “Scherzo,” and broad and heroic in the final movement. Repeated notes were altered to reflect the phrasing of melodic material in other instruments instead of being played, as written, without expression. The principal horn, making the transitional call to the last movement, hit the awkward intervals like clay pigeons with a rifle and then broadened the sound to lift the entire ensemble into the finale.

Except for an occasional lapse in playing uniformity and excessive dryness with their spiccato sound in the “Scherzo,” the string section played with a vivid palette throughout the concert. The robust conversation between the first and second violins in Beethoven’s last movement was radiant. Their long lines of melody were dramatically balanced with changes in intensity when they imitated each other. The sounds of the violas, cellos, and basses merged into an organ-like timbre that was enhanced further when joined by the bassoon. Descending melodic sequences in the basses enriched the sound of the ensemble with a character of nobility and musical purpose infused into the symphony’s unexpectedly subtle ending.

The Mozart overture opened the concert with imposing dexterity as the first and second violins played the quick spiccato passages with clarity, putting accents unvaryingly on the ornamental elements. This produced a driving rhythm that was echoed by the rest of the orchestra, jumping in and out of the musical fracas – a musical hide-and-seek with quick-witted musical flair.

Instead of his clear and consistent modern tack, Smith could have approached this program with performance techniques more appropriate to the pieces’ compositional periods. But by offering a contemporary lens through which to view Beethoven and Mozart, he made them more accessible and meaningful to a 21st Century audience.

The next Masterworks concert will feature the music of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 1, at the Adler Theatre (136 East Third Street, Davenport), and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 2, at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall (3703 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island). For more information, visit QCSymphony.com.

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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