Thursday , May 23 2024
Adam Golka and Michael Stephen Brown at the Aspect Chamber Music concert 'Mozart as Harlequin'
Adam Golka and Michael Stephen Brown (photo credit: Oren Hope)

Concert Review: Music by Mozart for Two Pianists, with Michael Stephen Brown and Adam Golka

There’s no doubt classical music needs fresh audiences. How to attract them? Focusing on the fun side is one good tactic. Fortunately, to do that, you needn’t concoct any gimmicks. It’s all right there in the music – and the personality – of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart for Four Hands

Longtime classical music fans and aficionados, too, appreciate the lighter and more playful side of the tradition, especially when it’s manifested with the brilliance of a composer like Mozart. So do many great interpreters of the music – like pianists Michael Stephen Brown and Adam Golka, who just capped – with a Harlequin’s cap – the 2023–24 season of the Aspect Chamber Music Series with a concert of music by Mozart for two pianos and for piano four hands. The concert combined wonderful musicianship with humor and hijinks, along with historical context from an illustrated talk by eminent scholar and biographer Jan Swafford.

There was even a vocal surprise. But we’ll get to that.

The concert opened playfully with an off-program performance of a piece not written for two pianos at all. Mozart’s Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” the French folk tune known best in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” was written for one person to play on one keyboard. But this crisp and delightful showpiece was twice as fun with parts bouncing from one pianist to another. Brown and Golka are good friends and frequent collaborators, and their camaraderie was contagious in this performance.

Ghost of the Other Mozart

Things got more serious, but no less spirited, with the Sonata for Piano Four Hands in D major, K.381. Mozart wrote this when he was 17 for himself and his older sister Nannerl, an equally prodigious pianist, to perform together. (And who knows what a composer Nannerl might also have been if the music world had been open to women composers in their time?)

Michael Stephen Brown told me in a recent interview that since the pianists are at the same piano for this sonata, “we literally are touching, we can feel each other’s impulses, we can breathe together.” Their timing was indeed warmly synchronous from the first moments. The sweet second movement even featured some unison trills.

They followed this sonata with a piece new to me, indeed new even to Brown and Golka before Mr. Swafford suggested it for this program. Mozart left unfinished the highly operatic Larghetto and Allegro for Two Pianos in E flat Major. The brief and rather dark Larghetto, which Mozart did complete, emerged with gentleness and sensitivity. The Allegro, even amid its sophisticated interiority, sounded bright, even twinkly, with perhaps a hint of tongue in cheek. It was a highly focused performance and a highlight of the evening.

For the C minor Fugue for Two Pianos the musicians switched instruments. And why not? Why should one player benefit for the entire match from an advantageous wind direction and sun position? Oh, no, that’s tennis. In any case, the piece was a dizzying listen, rocking on seas of notes that combined into occasionally strange, unexpected harmonic movements.

After an intermission the pianists took solo turns. Brown performed the Minuet in D major, K.355, which somehow compresses wry charm, humor, and a bit of the macabre into just a few minutes. Golka gave us the Kleine Gigue in G major, K.574, a fascinating little dance with harmonies that are, as Swafford observed, “anything but conventional.” Despite the program’s overall theme of playfulness, the works from Mozart’s later career represented the composer at the height of his genius.

Gibes of a Genius

Swafford had also been reading to us raunchy and cockeyed selections from Mozart’s letters to a girlfriend. Before moving on to the Sonata for two pianos in D major, K.448, Brown and Golka rose from their keyboards to join the writer and surprise guest, conductor Tito Muñoz, to sing Swafford’s new translation of a riotous, scatological four-voice canon (round) Mozart wrote making fun of a friend of his – “O du eselhafter Martin.” (Hint: “eselhafter” means “asinine.”)

How often do you get a world premiere (of sorts) at a concert devoted entirely to music of Mozart? The canon was a huge hit.

Michael Stephen Brown, Adam Golka, Jan Swafford at the Aspect Chamber Music concert 'Mozart as Harlequin'
L–R: Michael Stephen Brown, Adam Golka, Jan Swafford (photo credit: Oren Hope)

In our interview, Brown told me that the Sonata for Two Pianos in D major “is written conversationally, humorously, and as always with Mozart, operatically – and our process of rehearsing has allowed us to highlight the wit and genius of the music.” It also “requires a strong belief in coordination and anticipation of what your partner is going to do, especially since one isn’t able to see the other’s hands.”

The pianists presented the first movement’s dense textures with authority. In its “conversationality” this movement actually feels fugue-like in places. Brown and Golka had virtuosity to spare for its flurries of scales.

The second movement sounded much like a vocal duet, indeed operatic, and both playful and heartfelt. The performance captured the fullness of the beauty of the piece. The short, joyous finale was a perfect distillation of the love of life, the joie de vivre, for which Mozart is so well known.

This concert, with its tribute to classical music’s fun side, was a fine way to conclude the Aspect Chamber Music season. It’s presentations like this that perpetuate love for the classics.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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