Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Classical Connection: A review of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's Feb. 17 concert

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Constantine, performed music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) at the Rhinehart Music Center on the campus of Purdue Fort Wayne on Feb. 17.

At first glance, the pairing of Chopin's first published piano concerto and Mozart's final work, a setting of the Requiem Mass, seems a strange combination. However, both works represent closing stages of each composer's life. First, the piano concerto was one of the final works Chopin wrote and performed in his native Poland. Second, Mozart's Requiem was the very last work he wrote. In addition, both composers died in their thirties - Chopin lived 39 years and Mozart lived 35 years. Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and Mozart likely had a variety health issues, and medical science could do little for them during their lifetimes. Another thing: both Chopin and Mozart were very fine pianists. However, conductor Andrew Constantine notes this fact: when Chopin died in 1849, there was a huge funeral and the music played was Mozart's Requiem.

Chopin became known as a piano virtuoso and he wrote primarily solo piano works. He used the orchestra very little and only in his earlier years. He completed his two piano concertos by the time he was 20 years old. There have often been complaints that Chopin's orchestrations were basic and rather limited; although he became friends in Paris with the great Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt, Chopin wasn't influenced by Liszt's lush orchestrations. It has been argued that Chopin apparently wanted the very challenging piano solos to have greater prominence rather than including a large, dominant orchestra. In any case, the piano itself clearly dominates both of his concertos.

The first concerto was actually the first to be published, and its premiere in Warsaw, on Oct. 12, 1830, with the composer as soloist was a great success. There was "thunderous applause." Interestingly, when Chopin was again soloist in the Paris premiere two months later, there was also a warm reception for the music. Chopin would spend most of his remaining years in Paris, where he became friends with Liszt and the famous woman writer who used the pen name George Sand.

The three-movement concerto is scored for solo piano, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.

Michelle Cann, a concert pianist and faculty members of the Curtis Institute of Music, has been a champion of composer Florence Price since she discovered her music five years ago. Two of Price’s symphonies have just been recorded and released by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Emma Lee
Michelle Cann, a concert pianist and faculty members of the Curtis Institute of Music, has been a champion of composer Florence Price since she discovered her music five years ago. Two of Price’s symphonies have just been recorded and released by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Philharmonic's performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Opus 11, featured pianist Michelle Cann, who teaches at both Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Overall, she is a true virtuoso performer, who can handle the very showy and spectacular passages with great power and dexterity as well as the more lyrical and sensitive portions of the score. Essentially, she is a very impressive pianist with considerable flexibility and appreciation of the changing moods of Chopin's score.

The concerto begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction that is basically a very moving, rather patriotic march-like procession that paves the way for the showy piano solos. In this performance, I found the Philharmonic under Constantine provided a majestic and skillful preparation for the dazzling piano passages, filled with Chopin's characteristic glissandos, arpeggios, and trills, all of which were skillfully performed. The Fort Wayne strings really shone throughout the concerto and were ably assisted by the winds and brass. The orchestra provided consistently excellent interludes and accompaniment.

Cann was exciting and delightful in the animated first and third movements, where the main emphasis is on awesome piano playing. Several times her playing gave me "goose bumps." She was very much involved in the music and was consistently on top of the challenging passages. By contrast, she played with great sensitivity in the slow, more lyrical and sustained music of the second movement. There is deep feeling in this music, perhaps since Chopin was about to leave his native Poland and move on to Paris, resulting in greater fame and fortune. The concerto concludes with a rondo, a musical form with recurring themes that was a favorite of Mozart and Beethoven. Interestingly, despite the influence of Beethoven in this concerto, Chopin chose not to write an extended coda or ending to the concerto. Nevertheless, the rondo builds in intensity and ends impressively. Through it all, Constantine and the orchestra provided strong and effective backing for the piano.

Cann's performance greatly impressed the very large and enthusiastic audience. As a result, there was yet another thunderous ovation, with the audience standing and cheering. Constantine then invited Cann to give an encore. At first, we thought it was a traditional performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's very popular Prelude in C-sharp minor (Opus 3, No. 2), but then the music began to change and it became increasingly jazzy and dazzling. So, Cann further showed her musical abilities with a very difficult performance of a jazz paraphrase of the familiar Rachmaninoff work for solo piano.

Some of the Philharmonic players were clearly puzzled at first by what she was playing until they realized it was definitely a mischievous and impressive "take" on Rachmaninoff's usually serious music.

After intermission came the Mozart setting of the Requiem Mass. It is known that Mozart's health began to fail in 1791, his final year, and medical experts in modern times have concluded that he likely had heart disease and kidney ailments. The composer himself complained that he felt he had been "poisoned" and the Italian composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), who knew Mozart and was sometimes considered a "rival," was even accused of poisoning Mozart. Yet medical evidence shows that it was unlikely that Mozart had been poisoned.

Mozart continued to produce masterpieces in 1791, including his twenty-seventh and final piano concerto, the clarinet concerto, the short choral work "Ave verum corpus," and the very fine comic opera "The Magic Flute." He was then asked by "a mysterious figure" to compose a setting of the Requiem Mass. (We now know that Mozart's commission was actually from a nobleman.) This particular liturgy is in Latin and includes elements of a standard Roman Catholic mass as well as particular texts appropriate for a funeral service. Mozart began to think he was writing a Requiem for his own death.

To this day, it is impossible to know how much of the Requiem was actually written by Mozart before he died early on the morning of Dec. 5, 1791. We do know that Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803) completed the score and delivered it to Count Franz von Walsegg, who decided to use the Requiem to mark the first anniversary of his wife's death. Mozart's widow Constanze (1762-1842) appreciated the commission since her husband had often had financial challenges.

Surviving manuscripts show at least drafts of the score as far as the Offertorium in Mozart's hand; it is possible that Mozart verbally communicated his wishes to Süssmayr beyond that point or provided some written sketches. However, it is clear that Sussmayr reverted to the opening music for the very last section of the Requiem, "Cum sanctis tuis," perhaps so that the work would end with music actually written by Mozart.

The Requiem uses a standard vocal quartet as well as a large chorus and substantial orchestra. It shows Mozart's continuing maturity as a composer and his move toward what eventually became the Romantic movement in classical music.

The Philharmonic's performance of the Mozart-Süssmayr Requiem, K. 626, featured soprano Marien Nahhas, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Bille Bruley, and bass Brent Michael Smith.

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus, prepared by Benjamin Rivera, and the Ball State University Concert Choir, prepared by Kerry Glann, were in the terrace seats behind the soloists and orchestra. The sopranos were on the far left; to the right were the contraltos, the tenors, and the basses. For those of us familiar with the score, it was easy to know where to look whenever Mozart featured a particular section. It made for a great stereophonic effect.

The Requiem begins with an Introit, which translates "Eternal rest grant them, O Lord." This is very solemn music and it was performed mostly by the choruses and orchestra with great feeling. This leads to the Kyrie, which translates "Lord, have mercy upon us." The music here is more animated and agitated; there is great drama and intensity in the music, which was presented with considerable force.

Most settings of the Requiem Mass place emphasis on the Dies Irae, which translates "Day of wrath and doom impending." Berlioz and Verdi both treated this text with great fear and anguish, bordering on absolute terror. Mozart's setting is intense but somewhat restrained, while still continuing to express the great dread of Judgment Day. The choruses were quite intense in this music.

The four soloists were featured in Tuba mirum, which translates "Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth." Mozart has the singers enter one by one, beginning with the bass, followed the tenor, the mezzo-soprano, and finally the soprano. They also sing together. We finally had opportunity to hear each soloist, individually and then in a true quartet. This is rather showy and impressive music that was wonderfully performed. I should note that the orchestra provided very fine accompaniments throughout this and the other sections. I was pleased, too, that none of the sections were followed by applause; the audience waited until the end to show its appreciation.

The chorus returns in the very agitated Rex tremendae ("King of majesty tremendous"). This is an exciting section of Mozart's score and it was performed with real precision and intensity.

Recordare is a more reflective section; the translation begins "Think, kind Jesus my salvation caused Thy wondrous Incarnation (the divine means in which Jesus became a man). This section offers a real contrast, as Mozart intended, and was sung with sensitivity.

Confutatis ("When the wicked are confounded") is a very intense section sung by the chorus. It initially focuses on the condemnation of those who have rejected God, then shifts to the hope of believers to be surrounded by the Saints and forgiven of their sins. The music includes a "galloping" theme, like horses rushing together, that is one of the more impressive passages. Fortunately, it was sung with drive and determination.

"Lacrimosa" ("Ah! that day of tears and mourning") is one of the saddest portions of the score. There is great anguish in this music as, once again, there is the hope of forgiveness and eternal rest for believers. This was a very moving performance.

It was apparently during the Offertorium, which expresses a hope of believers to be spared the suffering of hell, that Mozart may have stopped his composing. There are two sections: Domine Jesus Christe and Hostias. The manuscripts include most of this music in Mozart's hand. After this, it is believed that Süssmayr continued the mass, possibly using suggestions or clues Mozart had given him. In any case, this was sung with great feeling. Each of the sections conclude with the very dramatic text that translates, "Which Thou didst promise of old to Abraham and his seed."

The Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts") and the Benedictus ("Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord") are interrelated since both conclude with "Hosanna in excelsis" or "Hosanna in the highest." The music here is very impressive and was well sung powerfully by the singers.

Agnus Dei is a familiar text that translates "Lamb of God, who takest away the sin of the world." The quartet and the chorus both skillfully participated in this section, which leads to the Lux Aeterna ("Let eternal light shine upon them, O Lord" and then the Requiem aeternam ("Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord").

We do not know if Mozart intended to repeat the opening music of his Requiem, but it certainly ensures that Mozart literally has "the last word" in performances of his final work. So, the Requiem ends as it began and, given the overall fine singing by the soloists and choruses, as well as the excellent orchestral work, it was a truly moving experience for those who intended.

One concern was that the Philharmonic booklet did not provide a translation of the Latin texts. While many are undoubtedly familiar with these words used in settings of the Requiem Mass, there are others who would better appreciate Mozart's work by knowing what the singers were actually singing. So, I would urge the Philharmonic to provide translations in the programs whenever we have a work in a language other than English.

The next Fort Wayne Philharmonic "Masterworks Series" concert will be Saturday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the Rhinehart Music Center at Purdue Fort Wayne. The program will include "Impressions - Suite for String Orchestra" by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad; Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Opus 14, with soloist Rachel Barton Pine; and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.