A while back, I discovered something unexpected about the music of Mozart: It's chameleon-like. Play Mozart after Tchaikovsky and it sounds ultra-romantic. The same piece after Bach sounds severe and orderly; after Haydn, playful and quirky. The music of Mozart is so spiritually ambiguous, it takes on the emotional colouring of whatever surrounds it and whoever plays it. It's unique in all of music in that regard. So, not surprisingly, we heard two quite different Mozarts on Wednesday and Thursday night at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall as part of its annual Mozart Festival.
When Mozart was 13, he wrote to his mother from one of his innumerable road trips, "My heart is quite enraptured for pure joy because I feel so merry on this journey, and because our coachman is a brave fellow who drives like the wind."
Pure joy, driven by the wind – that was the Mozart we heard from guest conductor Johannes Debus on Wednesday evening, making his Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut, along with American pianist Jeremy Denk and Canadian soprano Layla Claire.
Denk's joy was in evidence even before he took his seat at the keyboard to play Mozart's Piano Concerto in C Major. He bounced from the wings to the stage, an artist enraptured with the music he was presenting. Even before the "official" entry of the pianist, Denk was playing chords along with the orchestra, nodding in time to the music, providing a portrait of a musician discovering the beauty of his material as though for the first time (although you can be sure this wasn't Denk's first time through, or first one 1,000th time through, Mozart's K. 467). And although his carefree approach may have robbed the famous second movement of some of its pathos, the purity and honesty of his conception shone through in his take-no-prisoners, rush-to-the-exits bravura handling of the concerto's finale.
For his part, Debus provided us his "wind-driven" music-making in his handling of the Haffner Symphony. Leading an impressively disciplined TSO, he presented us the four movements of this galvanizing and shimmering work as though they were four opera overtures – not surprising, as he is the principal conductor of the Canadian Opera Company.
The Mozart we have learned to accept as a tortured, dark soul was nowhere to be heard in Debus's reading of this masterful work. All was surface charm and brightly lit drama, the opulent glitter of the 18th century at its most seductive.
To round out the evening, Claire applied the gorgeous range of her mezzo-to-soprano vocal equipment to Susanna's fourth-act aria from The Marriage of Figaro, and the Alleluja finale of Exsultate jubilate. A powerful artistry was present in all she sang.
It was a different Mozart we met on Thursday night. This was a younger, more conventional Mozart, carefully negotiating the musical styles of the Europe into which he was born. Thursday's music was thus more lyrical, less improvisatory, smoother and statelier in its approach. Partly this was due to a difference in artistic temperament between Debus and TSO music director Peter Oundjian, who was on the podium Thursday. Partly it was due to the music itself.
However, Thursday's concert was notable for the remarkably beautiful playing of its soloists. Two concertos dominated the program, written by Mozart just before and just after his 20th birthday. Concerto for Flute and Harp is a rarity, as Mozart hated the first instrument and seldom wrote for the second.
But the playing of the TSO's principal flautist, Nora Shulman, and principal harpist, Heidi van Hoesen Gorton, made you wish Mozart had written one of these every month. Shulman has been with the TSO for almost a quarter of a century, so we are used to her beautiful tone and fine musicianship. Van Hoesen Gorton has been with the orchestra for just a couple of years – this may be the first time we have really heard her play. And what a superb player she is – full of grace, with a wonderful sense of phrasing, balance and musical sense. The second movement solo cadenza featuring these two was simply some of the most beautiful music-making I have heard in Roy Thomson Hall for some time.
But the evening really belonged to German violinist Augustin Hadelich, who had the audience on its feet for a long time after his assured yet touchingly subtle reading of Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto. For a moment, the fiery, crazy-tilted Mozart of Denk and Debus returned to the stage as Hadelich turned all his youthful passion toward this famous work. It made you yearn for a Hadelich/Debus teaming. The two Mozarts we heard this week might then have come full circle.