Following the successful presentation of its first online concert, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will forge ahead this weekend with its second offering in a concert series that has been re-imagined to combat the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of musicians will again be limited to a size that can fit on stage with a distance of 6 feet between each player. This translates to a large chamber ensemble, which, this weekend, will play a full-sized concert under guest director Awadagin Pratt.
After winning the Naumburg International Piano Competition in 1992, Pratt has performed all over the world. In addition to soloing with orchestras, he has given recitals at prestigious venues like the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and the White House under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Pratt is a professor of piano at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and is known for his congenial style, which you can see when he follows Big Bird on a “Sesame Street” episode that is posted on YouTube.
But in addition to his artistry on the ivories, Pratt also has talents with the baton, and in this concert with the Vancouver orchestra, he will conduct Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 from the keyboard.
“This concerto is a lovely, charming piece of music,” Pratt said. “It has some very touching moments. And it has some personal significance for me because my teacher Leon Fleisher played it a lot in the last decade or so of his life. He had lost the use of his right hand for a number of years because of a neurological condition. This Mozart piece was his two-handed comeback concerto.”
Concerto No. 12 was one of three concertos that Mozart wrote at the ripe age of 26 for a series of subscription concerts that he gave in Vienna.
“One of the neat things about this concerto and the others in that group of three,” Pratt said, “is that they are able to be played with smaller forces: two winds, two oboes and strings. He wrote them to be played with string quartet as well. They are very flexible, very adaptable concertos that are perfect for COVID times.”
Pratt is getting some extra mileage from Mozart’s concerto, having performed it recently in Indianapolis and with the Cincinnati Symphony for a concert that will be digitally streamed Dec. 4. Because the piece offers moments called cadenzas, when the soloist can improvise (Mozart was famous for that), listeners of the Vancouver performance will hear Pratt’s inventions in the first and second movement.
“I am not a composer,” Pratt said, “but I have composed two-thirds of the first movement cadenza and half of the second movement cadenza for the Mozart.”
Another bright and lively piece on the program is the “Sinfonia No. 10” by Felix Mendelssohn. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn was a child genius. Between 1821 and 1823, when he was between 12 and 14 years old, Mendelssohn wrote 13 symphonies in the classical style. This work, for string orchestra, starts out in a stately fashion, but picks up speed and finishes buoyantly.
On the moodier, heavier, side of the program is “Metamorphosen” (Changes or Transitions), a work for a large string ensemble by Richard Strauss. Strauss wrote the piece during the last year of World War II.
“The Strauss piece is very rich harmonically and contrapuntally,” Pratt said. “You can hear lines flowing for every individual player. It is virtuosic for the musicians. Each musician has a higher degree of responsibility than when they are playing in a big orchestra. The music is haunting. At the end of the piece, Strauss quotes the funeral march from the ‘Eroica Symphony’ of Beethoven. It’s a profound work and very moving.”
In contrast to the youthful Mozart and Mendelssohn pieces, Strauss had just passed his 80th birthday when he wrote “Metamorphosen.”
“The context in which ‘Metamorphosen’ was written is sort of strange for these times,” Pratt explained, “because in a way, Strauss was mourning something that nobody else was mourning — the part of the culture of Germany that had nourished him. But everyone else was mourning the destruction that Germany had wrought upon the world. Strauss was a little bit tone deaf in that sense. There is a feeling right now of where is this country going. We are at some sort of a crossroads possibly.”
“So I’ve bookended the Vancouver program with the best — the optimism of Mendelssohn and Mozart. They represent the best products of a civilized society. Then you have Strauss, who is in the middle of one of the worst periods. He was not a Nazi or anything like that. But he wrote a great work of music despite the chaos.”