Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Angel Cake & Buttercream

Mozart woos with cake and conversation. Nicholas McGegan, music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, definitely understands the conversational aspect. His conducting of Il re pastore on Sunday evening conveyed the gossip and declaration, as well as all the queries, statements and murmured asides inherent in Mozart's classical style. McGegan sometimes conducts (er, shoots) from the hip, then delicately flips and wiggles his wrists high, as if poking fun at the violists, and during recitatives he takes command at the continuo. He is never merely keeping time (the orchestra, of course, doesn't need that) but rather, he articulates the musical dialogue with whatever gestures seem appropriate. The orchestra responds to his nuanced movements, performing with such a range of contrasts that I initially wondered if this was overdone Mozart. But the extreme accents and tremendous dynamic contrasts, particularly in the opening "overture," purposefully served the rest of the piece: the listener was prepared (ah! "set up") for the musical contrast between the conversations (recitative) and the pure emotions (aria) used to tell the sweet story.

(But what about the cake?!?)

Il re pastore is youthful Mozart, and for a seasoned listener like myself, the structure of the work can almost grow tiresome. Recit, recit, recit. Aria! More recit. Recit. Oo, another aria! With each aria, I fixated on the individual singers' voices, and here is the list of adjectives that sprung to mind: silky, rich, smooth, greasy, flexible and lyric. (The soloists were marvelous.) The arias tend not to move action or dialogue ahead; rather, they allow the character to turn the spotlight on their emotional state. On return to the recitative style, or to a purely instrumental moment, the stratifications of the music become more obvious. Aria = emotion = fat and silky. Recitative = let's do it, let's make something happen = light and structural. But the two need each other: the recit provides structure for the arias, and the arias satisfy our musical sweet tooth. The performers have to "get" this, too, (and indeed they did on Sunday) otherwise the whole becomes nothing more than a singing contest between superstar soloists with some instrumental scrabble thrown in between.

Thinking of the eighteenth century and watching McGegan at the podium... hearing the elegance that the Philharmonia brought to the music and witnessing the delight and whimsy shared among the performing soloists, well... I couldn't stop thinking about cake.* You know the perfect kind of cake, right? The cake mustn't be sweet. It barely suggests sweetness, and its texture should be light but strong, as if spun by spiders, or gathered from the clouds. Holding those layers together, fiercely and certainly, is the richest ganache. You cry over the ganache, but you don't really want to eat it without a bite of cake. It's thick, intense stuff, but you can make it even more so by tempering it with a bite of angel fluff. You see? This is all pure Mozart. The contrasts are exquisitely measured against each other, but the whole is really nothing more than cake! You might expect that proportions of extreme ingredients would yield an extreme whole, but that is the beauty of the classical style: the extremes result in an overall perfect simplicity.

Mmm. Hand me a fork.

None of this would be so apparent, however, if it weren't for the performers so expertly realizing the concept that McGegan teases out of this music. Sloppy Mozart could be as tasteless and as saccharine as a bad box cake. The Philharmonia Baroque delivers the style and design of the music with absolute certainty, and the whole experience is well, outrageously yummy! I love being able to say this about music that is two hundred and fifty years old. Sigh.

*For the record: I'm not really a cake girl. If you want to woo me, you do it with seasonal tarts and galettes, of the sort found--sublimely--here. Huckleberries, plum, rhubarb, or apple, or peaches and blackberry in a fine sliver of pastry...this is not quite Mozart. I'm not sure who it could be...I'll muse on it.


That is a most delicious review! So glad you enjoyed the performance.

By Blogger Moonbear, at 8:23 PM  

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