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A Trill a Minute

March 20, 2010

Because of his musical brilliance and enduring contributions to the classical canon, one sometimes forgets just how young Mozart was when he composed many of his major works. Within the composer’s crystalline classical structure, listeners find distinct buoyancy, a youthful joie de vivre and no shortage of showy musical filigree to flesh out his compostions.

It was a 21-year-old Mozart who composed the Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 271, also known as “Jenamy” in honor of Victoire Jenamy, a contemporary pianist and daughter of George Noverre, a dancer and professional colleague of the young Austrian composer. It was the 29-year-old pianist Jonathan Biss who brought the 30-minute work to life Friday with the help of the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the energetic baton of guest conductor Patrick Strub.

It was, you might say, “a trill a minute.”

The young pianist, already making a name for himself, was well up to the challenge of Mozart’s bright, fluid concerto. The trills came in bunches, especially during the first of the three movements, and the lanky Biss’s long fingers scampered up and down the keyboard to keep pace with Strub’s strident conducting, often ending his keyboard runs with physical flourishes of his own.

Mozart’s genius has always been a compositional clarity that makes the difficult sound simple, and Biss’s considerable keyboard accomplishments complemented well the composer’s wishes. At the end of his performance, the audience, too, seemed sufficiently “trilled” with the performance. It’s just unfortunate that there wasn’t any more for Biss to do during the two-hour program.

That’s not to say MSO didn’t admirably fill the gap, closing the evening with its first-ever performance of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11. The German composer was just 24 when he composed the work, a 49-minute colossus that served as warm-up to the symphonies that would eventually allow him his rightful place in musical history.

The six movements create a composite that’s symphonic in nature, with homage to both Haydn and Beethoven rising to the surface. Brahm’s classical structure comfortably couched moments of lyricism and idyll, with the closing rondo adding weight and measure to the otherwise lighter serenade. Strub’s highly physical style was perfectly suited to bring Brahms’ work and the evening to its rousing conclusion.

It was an evening that opened with the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Oberon. Weber composed the bright work in 1826, the same year he died from the effects of tuberculosis. The composer was just 39 at the time, which still keeps this often performed work within the youthful context that characterized a very satisfying evening at the symphony.

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