Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Philharmonic Performs Bach and Mozart

Saturday’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic program was one of the season’s more low-key performances — but very satisfying nevertheless.

The final program on the “Mozart and Friends” series includes J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1 and 6, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, a masterpiece composed when Mozart was only 18.

The final Brandenburg concerto poses unusual challenges. Its ensemble — four violas and continuo — is both deep-toned and homogeneous. Thematic and expressive variations can easily vanish into the pleasingly mellow carpet of sound.

Conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith and the seven musicians solved this with some subtle cresendos and decresendos and a judicious use of dynamic contrasts.

The finale, with its sweeping rhythms, was especially good — and violists Catherine Hanson and Mary Cowell made it look like as much fun to play as it is to listen to. Their sounds complement each other wonderfully: Hanson, hasa brighter, more violin-like tone, and Cowell's is darker yet radiant.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is the largest and most festive of the set. To audiences brought up on the later symphonic tradition of Mozart and Beethoven, its four-movement structure seems odd: Later composers would have put the exciting third movement after the stately fourth. But Bach's more relaxed arrangement is also satisfying.

Standout performers here were French horn players Matthew Scheffelman and Jennifer Doersch in the first and third movements, and oboist Guy Dutra-Silveira and violinist Michael Hanson in the poignant second movement, which features some of Bach’s most pungent dissonances along with a weirdly pointillistic passage near the end that still sounds surprising after nearly three centuries.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 marked a new period in his development, in both scale and sophistication. The opening theme belies the composer’s youth in both its yearning mood and the fancy counterpoint between the violins and the low strings.

It's not a fully mature work, though: The experiments still sound like experiments here, from the loud ending of the otherwise quiet second movement (the muted strings have a wonderful effect — like listening through gauze — which makes the brightness of the oboes and French horns stand out even more dramatically), to the odd held note in the winds at the end of the third movement.

For a lot of the string players — and orchestra in this piece is mostly strings — it was their first playing of the night, and it showed: They weren't really sharp until the third movement. But the dramatic finale was sparkling and even fiery.

First United Methodist Church has excellent acoustics and comfortable pews; about my only complaint as a concert venue is that apparently there's no way to turn down the house lights.

The program will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20; First United Methodist Church is located at 420 N. Nevada Ave.


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