Symphony concert
sparks but neglects
to electrify

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Pianist Norman Krieger commented at Friday night's concert with the Honolulu Symphony that "Jeunehomme" Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271, is the most difficult Mozart concerto, the thorniest mind-game.

And so it is.

Although composed when Mozart was only 21, this concerto is one of the most remarkable ever written. Formally innovative and harmonically startling, it surprises at every turn, from the first movement's witty repartee, when the piano continually outwits the orchestra, through the second's deeply moving pathos, to the third's buffo humor.

The challenge for performers is not only to surprise the audience, but also to be themselves surprised by the music's quirky twists and turns, while knowing every note in advance. After all, notes on paper are no more than a guideline. The joy, the tears, the surprises and passions happen only in performance.

Krieger clearly understood Mozart's concerto. Aware of the problems inherent in performing 18th-century music today, he adjusted his touch and use of pedal to accommodate the large hall and more powerful instruments, which he called a "sonic transcription" of what Mozart wrote.

His playing was crisp, the pedal muddying only intermittent passages. His communication and balance with the orchestra was excellent, and his interpretation was thoughtfully conceived and sensitively executed. Unusual for a soloist, he distinguished between carrying the main line and supporting orchestral lines.

Krieger's duets with orchestral solos were tasteful, his internal voicing balanced, tempos exact, and cadenzas graceful. In short, he played intelligently, cleanly and expressively.

And yet ... although there were moments of great beauty, the whole of the piece with its wide range of emotions never quite materialized.

Perhaps it suffered from "Mozart in the Middle" syndrome, with dynamics constrained between piano and forte. Perhaps the piece has become so familiar to Krieger that it no longer astonishes him. Perhaps there was no specific reason: Sometimes good performances simply refuse to take off and soar.

Or perhaps it was the evening.

Mahler's Symphony No. 5 also refused to soar, although for more specific reasons. Fully as dramatic as Mozart's, Mahler's style of composing is symphonic in nature, in that different instruments contribute bits to a larger whole. Everyone on both sides of the podium must grasp how it all fits together, lest the musical mosaic yield not a coherent picture but a kaleidoscope of colors.

Friday night yielded numerous gorgeous passages, especially by the first violins and cellos, Ken Friedenberg on French horn, James Decker and Eric Mathis on trombone, Scott Janusch on oboe, Scott Anderson on clarinet, Jason Sudduth on English horn, Stuart Chafetz on timpani, and so on.

Equally striking, however, were weak passages, raising questions about sufficient rehearsal time. (In performance alone, Mahler's Fifth lasts over 70 minutes.) The eight French horns struggled with ensemble and intonation, principal trumpet Michael Zonshine remains inconsistent in solos, the ethereal violin passage at the end of the Adagietto emerged scratchily earth-bound, and so on once again.

The first movement wavered, and movements II and III rambled, scattering into brightly colored bits. Only the last two movements seemed to cohere strongly. But in a long concert, a triumphant ending forgives much.

Ruth O. Bingham reviews classical music for the Star-Bulletin.

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