Gavin George, Swasey Chapel, Granville Ohio

The Philharmonic presents young, modest Mozart and Mendelssohn

By Pat Suarez

Photo: Piano prodigy and Ohio native Gavin George performs Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 May 5 and 6 at the Schuster; photo: Randall Schieber

Amadeus Mozart. Felix Mendelssohn. I know, the first thought that pops into your head is “dead before the age of 40.” And you’d be correct. But how about Purcell, Weber, and Gershwin? Those three composers also never saw 40. Surprised? And there’s a long list of composers who barely made it to age 50 that I bet will surprise most music lovers, including, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy, and Gustav Mahler. Although those men never grew old, they left the music world the basis of an entire culture.

But what if Mozart, for example, had made it to 70? Irish musician Steven O’Brien has postulated, “He would have continued his evolutionary line through his “Clarinet Concerto” and “Requiem.” His music may have become increasingly more contrapuntal and chromatic in nature. Eventually his style might have evolved into something loosely resembling an odd mixture of Chopin, Schubert, Bach, and Beethoven.”

More intriguing, Mozart might have taken Beethoven as a student. The two had met and discussed that arrangement, the result of which might have altered the course of Beethoven’s music, with Beethoven perhaps taking fewer musical risks—an incalculable loss. The two most certainly would have been (hopefully) friendly rivals, at least on better terms than Mozart and Salieri.

In the years 1805-1810, Mozart would have had to update his compositional style because audience taste had changed, and Mozart’s style had gone out of fashion. His scoring would have most certainly increased, his orchestra size perhaps doubling in the winds, brass, and percussion.

History—and fate—decreed otherwise. Yet, we still have enough for several lifetimes, and when viewed from that perspective, late Mozart is, stylistically, “late” Mozart, telescoping decades of progression into half the timeline of most composers.

On Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, conductor Mei-Ann Chen will lead the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in performances of two works by two forever-young composers, Mozart and Mendelssohn, along with “river sings a song to trees” from Jennifer Higdon’s concerto City Scape, an ode to the city of Atlanta.

“Mozart and Mendelssohn are a bit like oranges and apples for me,” Chen says of the highlighted composers. “Mozart is about expressing the most with the least amount of materials while Mendelssohn stretches the emotional range.”

Following the Higdon piece, pianist Gavin George will perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, penned when the composer was only 22. The concerto opens with a grim rush, trending against the concerto form of the time by having the soloist enter early in the first movement and then sitting quietly as the orchestra plays without him. Not until the last movement do we hear the stylistic Mendelssohn that his fans recognize. In that last movement, the pianist plays a cascade of rapid, fluid notes, which sound as if they are layered. Where Mozart’s piano concerti are the essence of elegance and precision, this G-minor concerto is all about muscular lyricism. Only 16 minutes long, the concerto provides plenty in three movements, including a heart-pounding finale—and proving that less is more.

Keeping with the concert’s theme of youth, piano soloist George is just 13 years old. Already a seasoned international award-winning pianist, George has performed in Minneapolis, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Perugia, Italy. DPO Music Director Neal Gittleman, keen of eye, ear, and talent, has graced the Schuster Center stage with numerous soloists at the dawn of their careers. It’s fascinating to see these young people when they are on the verge of superstardom and gratifying when they reach it.

Following intermission, Maestro Chen, a former student of Gittleman, will conduct Mozart’s final Symphony, No. 41 in C.

The symphony’s subtitle is “Jupiter,” but not after the planet—at least not directly. The story is more circuitous. Mozart based the last movement of the symphony on the first movement of a symphony by the Austrian composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. That D-major symphony has its own subtitle, “The Fall of Phaëton,” the Greek name for the same planet that Romans called “Jupiter.”

Remember our musical “less is more”? Both Mendelssohn and Mozart coaxed significant sound volume out of relatively modest forces.

Compared to Mendelssohn’s first Piano Concerto, Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” had one fewer flute, no clarinets, and timpani in C and G. Size didn’t matter with “Jupiter”: it’s as hefty in sound output as Beethoven’s first two symphonies, and those symphonies have the same instrumentation as “Jupiter,” but with two clarinets.

Ultimately, the survival of any form of music depends upon engaging young people, having them support it in some fashion, and then encouraging their children to learn about it.

Reaching and engaging the current generation of children and young adults, in Chen’s experience, comes from offering them outside-the-box opportunities, like multimedia experiences or, for instance, creating DIY (do-it-yourself) percussion instruments to join the orchestra in an encore.

“When we make the classical music fun and cool,” she says, “it’s more likely the young generation would change their perception towards what role music (in particular symphonic music) can play in their lives.”

 

The Dayton Philharmonic presents the music of Mozart and Mendelssohn Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Show is at 8 p.m. There will be a Take Note talk with Mei-Ann Chen at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance are $15.45–$64.30. For tickets or more information, please call 888.228.3630 or visit DaytonPerformingArts.org.

 

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Pat Suarez
Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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