Experiment with Mozart sparks creative heat

Conductor Jane Glover, a British Mozart specialist, displayed her skill at Symphony Hall. Conductor Jane Glover, a British Mozart specialist, displayed her skill at Symphony Hall. (Jerry Bauer
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2009

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Early in the first movement of a little-known Mozart piece in the Handel and Haydn Society’s concert at Symphony Hall on Friday, it was clear something special was going on. The conductor, the respected British Mozart specialist Jane Glover, seemed to be a Harry Potter character generating electricity with her hands, and the musicians were smiling and alert, as if receiving gentle shocks. This was music-making as a controlled blaze.

It was a brilliant idea to take the four entr’actes to “Thamos, King of Egypt’’ and stitch them together (minus choruses) to create a virtual lost symphony. “Thamos’’ was an experimental early work, revised by Mozart in 1779 as incidental music for a play (Mozart’s only such effort). It is full of the novel orchestra devices he had observed on his recent European tour - the sforzatos and crescendos, the coups d’archet (string attacks), the offbeat accents and sharp cutoffs. The orchestra’s period instruments created beautiful and surprising blends of sounds and allowed for a lovely interplay of voices, as string bow-strokes sounded remarkably like woodwind accents, and vice versa.

Many had come to Symphony Hall, no doubt, to hear the Harvard professor and fortepianist Robert Levin play Mozart’s heavenly Piano Concerto No. 21 in C-major. As Mozart is believed to have done, Levin played continuo during full orchestral passages, from a keyboard set back in the orchestra (too far back for anyone in the front rows of the orchestra), and improvised his own cadenzas. He played from memory. At times, he seemed to be imitating Tom Hulce’s Mozart from “Amadeus’’: He made faces, flung his arms, and turned to sections of the orchestra as they echoed phrases from the keyboard.

Actually, as Levin must know, Mozart had a composed demeanor onstage, and was proud of it. (“I am not making any grimaces when I play, yet I play with much expression,’’ he wrote his father in 1777.) But Levin was having fun, and there are spots, particularly in the last movement, when Mozart is so glibly formulaic (as if to say, “I am a genius, and can go on like this all day’’) that he deserves a little ribbing. We need more laughter in the concert hall, anyway.

Levin played with lovely, natural, flowing phrasing in the quieter moments. In fast passages, he pushed himself close to his limits, and some detail was lost. His cadenzas were thick, difficult, and impetuous, with little air in them to allow harmonic shifts to register.

The closer was Haydn’s “Farewell’’ symphony, No. 45, played with grace and precision, if without the intensity and sharp detail of the earlier pieces, down to the last two string players left onstage. This was a thoughtful and entertaining program, imaginatively and skillfully performed. Glover has been here before; let’s hope she makes many returns.

RETURNS AND FAREWELL Handel and Haydn Society

At: Symphony Hall, Friday

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