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Music review: Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra

October 25, 2009 |  5:00 pm

The motto of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, which offered the first of two programs at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Friday night, is “the cutting edge of classical music.”  That may be stretching it a bit, at least by the standards of the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic. It would take an unusually dexterous orchestra to trim borders in the picturesque, contented Austrian town where Mozart was born and where an Alp-sized dessert soufflé known as the Salzburger nockerl has been known to give even non-diabetics sugar seizures. 

Founded in 1841, the Mozarteum Orchestra is weighed down by more than a little tradition. Its music director since 2004 is Ivor Bolton, who specializes in music of the Baroque and Classical eras. And Friday’s concert couldn’t have begun more traditionally than with Bolton’s somewhat blunt account of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony No. 9 played with a burnished, musty, Old World sound.

But concerts usually end rather than begin with this big, hour-long score. And in the second half of the program, the Mozarteum, did, indeed, begin cutting edges.

The theme of the two programs was Haydn’s legacy, 2009 being the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. After intermission, the Mozarteum turned to Haydn’s early Cello Concerto No. 1 (Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 was played along with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the Saturday program which I did not hear). The cello soloist was Johannes Moser, a young German.

He was a delight. He enthusiastically anticipated each turn of phrase. His tone sang and carried easily. He engaged the orchestra musicians, and they seemed to grow better by the measure when playing with him. Moser also wrote his own cadenzas, which deftly placed Haydn’s melodies in a modern harmonic context that felt exactly right for our time yet true to Haydn’s. They were also ear-catchingly virtuosic.
It turns out that theses Salzburgers are more than a little legacy conscious. This fall the orchestra initiated a project called “2 Orchestras,” for which it commissions composers to write pieces that can be played both by the Mozarteum and youth orchestras.  

The first such work is “Mr. K Come to America” by Kurt Schwertsik, and Friday it came to America with the help of the Orange County Youth Symphony, which was invited by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County to join the Salzburgers.

I can’t think of a more wonderful choice to initiate this project than the gentle, jocular, 74-year-old Viennese nose-thumber. Schwertsik is, in fact, a complete anomaly. He is a sly melodist but with an anarchist bent who combines the creakily old-fashioned style of his mentor Joseph Marx with late 20th century German experimentalism, French lightheartedness and a healthy dose of John Cagean rule-breaking.
Schwertsik taught at UC Riverside in the 1960s, and “Mr. K Comes to America” seems to be glimpses of his first road trip across the States. The music doesn’t necessarily evoke the titles of the four movements (“The crossing,” “In the hotel,” En route” and “The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma”), but it does constantly thwart expectations. Melodies begin one way and then go another for little apparent reason. Likewise harmonies. Likewise rhythms. Likewise the tone colors of the orchestra. Nothing is extreme, but the slight off-centeredness proves remarkably entertaining.

The performance was smashing thanks in no small part to the exceptionally well-practiced pre-professionals, who brought a sparkle to the Salzburgers’ sound that wasn’t there before. Thus a few notes about OCYSO, which is led by Daniel Alfred Wachs, are in order. The orchestra is in its 40th season. The roster represents the demographics of the new Orange County. Most of the names on the roster are Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese or Indian. They are the real thing.

With Gustavo Dudamel bringing so much attention to new youth music programs in Los Angeles, it is too easy to overlook the work that has long been going on in our region. The Salzburgers are a serious bunch but seated side-by-side with these Orange County youths, they were all smiles. So were we all.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra.  Credit: Salzburg Mozarteum.