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Marvelous Mozart Concert at Rigefield Playhouse – January 5, 2002
Review By Courtenay Caublé

The Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, reduced to chamber orchestra size for the occasion, gave the first of its special Ridgefield Playhouse concerts last Saturday evening, and the newly refurbished hall’s fine acoustical resonance (though perhaps a bit compromised by the dampening effect of a capacity audience) was evident in overall sound balance and the clarity and projection of individual solo instrumental voices.

Maestro Sidney Rothstein’s all-Mozart program began with the composer’s First Symphony (in E-flat Major), written when Mozart was between eight and nine years old, and ended with the great Symphony No. 41 in C Major (the “Jupiter”), composed when Mozart was thirty-two, three years before his tragically early death. The concert’s centerpiece and highlight featured pianist Rui Shi, who dazzled an RSO audience two years ago with her brilliant performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, in Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466.

That an eight or nine-year-old child could conceive and write a piece of music as extensive, musically tasteful, and technically developed as Mozart’s earliest symphony boggles the mind. The music is both charming and replete with alternating orchestral tension and lyrical sweetness, and a number of the musical devices and characteristics that the composer would pursue to perfection in subsequent works are already present. But listening to the last of his symphonies later in the program made quite clear what can happen as a creative genius matures. The “Jupiter” Symphony, ending as it does with a tour de force final movement that still inspires awe in students of musical composition, gives evidence both of total technical mastery and of the additional wide range of moods and emotional depth that come only after a lifetime of living.

Maestro Rothstein is consistently fine in collaboration with soloists, and he and his musicians did an exemplary job, both in accompaniment and partnership with Ms. Shi in the piano concerto – particularly in the wonderful musical dialogues between hushed turbulence in the orchestra and introspective lyricism in the solo piano.

Other high points for the orchestra were the lovely second movement of the Jupiter Symphony and its Finale, where Maestro Rothstein was in full control, defining individual voices and expertly managing intricate contrapuntal interweaving of voices.
And perhaps very limited rehearsal time can be blamed for some of the less rewarding moments elsewhere. A lovely device involving two French horns beneath a lyrical phrase in the strings that the youthful Mozart used in the second movement of his first symphony (and with telling effect in later works) was compromised by dubious intonation and slightly insecure playing by the horns. And the first movement of the Jupiter Symphony, taken at perhaps a hair too fast a tempo for the kind of attention to phrase delineation needed to support the effect of Mozart’s general expressiveness and masterful use of rising harmonic tension, came across more like a routine read-through than a polished interpretation.

Rui Shi, still less than twenty years old, is a remarkable pianist who will defy my expectations if she fails to become one our most celebrated performing artists. Already equipped with a brilliant and fluent technique, she plays with easy grace and professional aplomb. The single wrong chord she inadvertently landed on at the bottom of a fast run – as much a surprise as an aural shock – served almost as a beauty spot, like an insignificant blemish to call attention to the perfection that surrounds it.

Nicely supported by Maestro Rothstein and the orchestra, Ms. Shi’s performance was both brilliant and lovely. To performers with Ms. Shi’s technical mastery, though, Mozart’s music may seem deceptively easy to perform because (unlike the music of many later composers) it seldom goes very far beyond the regular scale and arpeggio patterns that every well-schooled pianist learns by rote. And the usually predictable style of late eighteenth-century “Classical Period” music, with its measured elegance and balanced phrases, sometimes militates against an awareness of the depth and range of emotion that may beg for attention and expression.

There is much implied emotional range in the lyriccism of Mozart’s alternatively turbulent and introspective D minor Concerto, and the one flaw in Ms. Shi’s otherwise splendid performance was that only a narrow range of feeling came through.
The greatest actors are those who, having mastered the techniques of their craft through studying, practicing, and observing the work of other actors, are able to go beyond their concern about technique – letting it work for them automatically as an instrument in the service of their main task, which is to feel the emotions behind the lines they have memorized and to project those emotions to their audiences.

A musical performer aspiring to greatness must do the same. Now that she is well along her way towards complete mastery of her instrument, perhaps Ms. Shi should move away from dependence of other artists’ interpretations and pay more direct attention to what the music itself — and particularly its harmonic movement — is telling her about its underlying emotions. Beyond notes, rhythms, and dynamic markings, there are those small personal rubatos and agogic lingerings that transform mere musical loveliness into an emotional communication.

Violinist Sherry Kloss, a former student and teaching assistant of the great Jascha Heifetz, will join Sidney Rothstein and the RSO for the next Ridgefield Playhouse concert. Works by Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, and Foster in the first half will be followed after intermission by a master class in which Ms. Kloss will instruct a group of local string players.

Related Reviews:
Review of this concert by Frank Merkling
Review of a related concert by Susan L. Peña of the Reading Pennsylvania Eagle/Times