Kahane provides sparkling Mozart in duo roles with Houston Symphony

Sat Nov 26, 2016 at 12:37 pm
By Lawrence Wheeler
Pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane performed Mozart with the Houston Symphony Friday night.

Pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane performed Mozart with the Houston Symphony Friday night.

The Houston Symphony presented “A Mozart Thanksgiving” with Jeffrey Kahane in duo roles as pianist and conductor Friday night.  A superb pianist as well as a gifted conductor, Kahane performed a pair of Mozart piano concertos and conducted the orchestra in the “Prague” Symphony (No. 38).

The piano was center stage, sans lid, with the keyboard facing the audience. This setup allowed Kahane to perform while simultaneously conducting the orchestra. He stood during the orchestral parts and sat and gestured during solo passages. His conducting was energetic and decisive, which propelled the music kinetically. Kahane and the Houston Symphony consistently delivered the varied colors and articulation that can make Mozart’s music so special.

First on the program was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, one of only two that Mozart wrote in a minor key. Many consider this dark and conflicted work to be his finest in the genre.

Kahane’s interpretation elicited inner details that brought the music to life, making it sound original and fresh through conversational dialogue with the orchestra. He showed complete command of the keyboard, producing total clarity within musical lines. He played his own first-movement cadenza, which, fittingly, featured distinctive touches that proved clever as well as unexpected.

The Houston Symphony was in splendid form, with the strings supplying brilliance and the woodwinds providing pathos. Pairs of oboes and clarinets were beautifully supported by bassoonist Rian Craypo, while flutist Aralee Dorough sparkled on top. In the final movement, a theme and variations, the winds were especially charming in the two contrasting sections in major keys.  

The Symphony No. 38, K. 504, is known as the “Prague” since it was first performed in that city. The work was composed in 1786, several months after the C minor piano concerto, and shows how Mozart could seamlessly shift moods in an instant. Both works show Mozart at his most developed and mature, his woodwind writing showcasing his innate understanding of the nature and capabilities of those instruments.  

Conducting without a score, Kahane expertly shaped phrases in the upper string melodies and gave cues to the lower strings, sometimes over his shoulder. The winds again added expression and charm, though trumpets could have been better blended at times.

Following intermission, Kahane returned to conduct and perform the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, completed one year before the C minor concerto.

Kahane and the Houston Symphony made a strong case for the concerto solely on musical terms. This performance was sensitive but straightforward and unfussy. The wind section (largely different from the first half) expressively provided the music’s heart and soul, while the first violins again played with remarkable clarity and unanimity. As piano soloist, Kahane found new colors in each phrase, including intimacy in the second movement. He again provided his own imaginative cadenza.

The Jones Hall audience received the concert warmly, with several standing ovations. Kahane responded with a surprising encore, his own improvisation on America the Beautiful. It began softly, with fragments of the actual melody, and it was some time before the fog lifted and the musical picture came into focus. The melody was then repeated several times, each iteration having a different feeling or mood. Particularly poignant was the tune played softly in a minor key. Eventually, the melody became majestic followed by a gradual diminuendo until the end.

At the conclusion, Kahane’s hands were at the extreme ends of the keyboard, his head lowered. Kahane’s encore showed the power of music in this simple musical gesture, wordlessly reflecting the strong yet mixed feelings of worry, unsettledness, thankfulness, and perhaps hope across  our country on this Thanksgiving weekend. 

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. houstonsymphony.org

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