The Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) performance on Saturday, December 7, demonstrated the sharp contrasts within classical music. From rugged romanticism to stark minimalism, the concert led by Conductor and Musical Director Donald Schleicher was balanced, and the performance was well formed, as the orchestra played pieces by Kearnis, Mozart, Respighi, and the Paganini of the piano, Franz Liszt. The QCSO left the first half of its subscription series with positive sounds, and most in the sparse audience were eager for more.

Aaron Jay Kearnis’ Musica Celestis evocatively opened the evening. Originating from the second movement of Kearnis’ first string quartet, the piece moved along at a brisk pace, never giving the impression that the music was stalling but paced well enough to allow the audience to meander and explore Kearnis’ sounds. Most assuredly, the music was aided by Schleicher’s command of newer music and his willingness to experiment with atypical pieces.

On the heels of Kearnis, soloist Gustavo Romero performed and conducted from the piano Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Subtitled the Elvira Madigan, No. 21 has become one of Mozart’s most popular pieces of music. Though the music is readily accessible, the concerto was the most sophisticated piece of music on the program. Romero danced along the keys and played with clarity that was delightfully in balance with the orchestra.

Yet it was Romero’s performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 that brought the audience to its feet and dazzled a crowd that had grown hungry for orchestral fireworks. Neither of Liszt’s concertos is a concerto in the classical sense; they are heroic but short piano-and-orchestra showpieces that never fail to wow crowds. For 20 minutes Schleicher and Romero led an assured performance of Liszt’s difficult work. Never relenting, Romero pounded forward with Herculean effort that quickened the pulse, and made sweat drip from the collective brow of the audience.

The second half of the 2002-3 subscription series looks bright, as performances with Rosen Milanov and Glen Dicterow await the symphony faithful. December’s performance should mean good things for the orchestra in 2003, and might even help improve crowds at the Adler.

Concert Matches Two Very Different Piano Concertos

The two piano concertos featured in December’s Quad City Symphony Orchestra performance couldn’t be any more different. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 is traditional and inventive, subtle and sophisticated, while Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is experimental and unbridled, outlandish and emotional. Yet both mark important places in the concerto repertoire.

Liszt’s concerto essentially eschews all of the standard conventions of separated movements and contest between orchestra and soloist. It is instead a work grounded in a continuous thematic development that is achieved through a series of musical stages. Throughout the work, Liszt shifts between his two faces: the poetic Liszt and the virtuoso Liszt that undoubtedly helped build his reputation as the Paganini of the piano. Liszt was a music superstar in his day, and his music was designed to further enhance his reputation as a topnotch soloist. This schizophrenia is what sometimes makes Liszt’s music difficult to embrace.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both a genius and outlandish character. He was surely driven by ego underpinned by a desire to create more elaborate and sophisticated music while maintaining an accessible form for the audience. This later assumption permeates the entire concerto.

The first movement begins in a pretty banal march, but what Mozart does with this simple idea is construct a tight, convincing argument around the solo piano part. The first movement shifts between fantasy and martial, fantasy and bravura while never overtly pronouncing the main theme of the movement.

Many consider the second movement a perfect Aria. The tune is lovely and anticipates the coming romantic voice.

The finale again demonstrates Mozart’s sophistication as a composer. Though a lighthearted romp, the music is always off-balance, giving the movement a forward-moving feel. The piano leads by challenging the orchestra to explore new melodic territory, the whole time maintaining the first six notes of the movement.

Recommended Recordings: Murray Perahia; English Chamber Orchestra – Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 (CBS Masterworks); Krystian Zimmerman, Boston Symphony Orchestra – Liszt Concerto No. 2 (Deutsche Grammophone)

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