A Fine, if Sometimes Fuzzy, 'Portrait' of Mozart

By Andrew Lindemann Malone
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 16, 2006

What kind of guy was this Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart we've been celebrating so much for the past months? His vast corpus of graceful, stylish, delightful music, combined with our culture's unstinting enthusiasm for commemorating anniversaries, has certainly inspired a bounty of concerts in this 250th year after his birth. But the story of his life is darker than most of his music, and it's a tale worth hearing as well.

To that end, actor and author Martin Goldsmith read his hour-long account of Mozart's life last night in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, the latest in his series of "Composer Portraits." Under music director Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra played brief excerpts of Mozart's music as accompaniment. Pianist Lisa Emenheiser and NSO principals handled the chamber music, while soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot and tenor Benjamin Butterfield sang bits of arias from the operas. Meanwhile, images depicting Mozart's life were projected on a screen hanging over the stage.

This combination was intended to create an immersive experience, but it was Goldsmith's narrative that held one's attention. He certainly has mastered the form he has devised for these events, selecting anecdotes and quotes from Mozart's letters to provide a full picture of his impish humor, pride, impetuosity and tenderness, as well as his increasing desperation when, toward the end of his life, he found himself constantly in debt.

Goldsmith's crisp, even voice occasionally livened up for some apt jokes, and he kept the tale moving along at an incident-filled clip.

The NSO sounded about as good as an orchestra can sound when playing 30-second snippets, which is to say that not many of its contributions to Goldsmith's show made much of an impression. (An exception was the brief excerpt from Mozart's late-life Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, which NSO principal clarinet Loren Kitt made into a serene island in the increasingly stormy tale.) Though the orchestra's contributions helped make the narrative come alive, I sometimes wondered how much would be lost by simply buying a biography of Mozart and playing a "Wolfgang's Greatest Hits" CD while reading it.

After intermission, Slatkin gave a genial, lucid explication of the "Jupiter" Symphony in C, K. 551, in which he had the orchestra play all the major themes and explained how Mozart developed them.

Having told us why the "Jupiter" may be the peak of Mozart's symphonic output, Slatkin then led a performance that seemed tense with the need to prove it, pushing tempos to the point where the NSO's phrasing often felt airless from the exertion. The expansive first movement lost some of its ringing grandeur, while the lyrical resignation of the second felt almost breezy in this performance. The minuet had an engaging punchiness; the finale blazed by in an exciting rush, but the textures were too thick and the tempo too quick for Mozart's thrilling contrapuntal writing to clearly emerge.

Still, in this anniversary year, it's good to hear who all the fuss is about, which you can do when the program is repeated tonight and tomorrow at 7 p.m.

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