Review: Improv Adds Zing to Music of the Baroque’s Mozart Birthday Concert

By Bob Bensenson, Third Coast Review
January 23, 2023

Each January, Chicago’s Music of the Baroque orchestra celebrates Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born on January 27, 1756. This “birthday” concert is reliably excellent, as the ensemble has gained recognition since its founding in 1971 as one of the leading interpreters of Mozart’s work.

At the concert on Saturday at the Harris Theater, Dame Jane Glover—Music of the Baroque’s longtime lead conductor and music director—energetically led the orchestra through Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major and Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major without a score or podium in front of her.

The program, which also included Joseph Bologne’s Symphony No. 1 in G Major, was also performed on Sunday at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.

That said, this year’s Mozart concert was uniquely entertaining and enlightening. A large part of the credit goes to Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan pianist who was featured in the title of the program (Montero Plays Mozart).

Montero’s performance concluded the first half of the evening’s formal performance. Described by musicologists as one of Mozart’s most technically demanding pieces, the concerto opens with an Allegro maestoso movement—maestoso mean majestic—with the orchestra taking the lead. Montero then entered, playing Mozart’s rapid-fire score with grace and fluidity.

She played an even larger role in the second (Andante) movement. This is the most generally familiar part of the concerto, having received a big boost in 1967 when it was featured in Elvira Madigan, a Swedish-made dramatic film that was popular at the time.

After the lush beauty of the movement, the concerto’s Allegro vivace assai finale was indeed lively, considered comparable to the scores of Mozart’s comic opera. Montero ably kept pace with its demanding keyboard runs.

After acknowledging a loud standing ovation with a second bow, Montero engaged the audience about one of her trademark talents: improvising classical themes based on modern popular tunes. Her request for ideas from the audience produced a call for Over the Rainbow, the poignant ballad introduced by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. After playing a few bars of one of the genre’s most popular tunes, Montero riffed a dazzling party piece.

It wasn’t quite clear how much of Over the Rainbow was left by the end, but it was certainly entertaining to watch
The program had opened with the evening’s only non-Mozart piece, Symphony No. 1 in G Major by Bologne, also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Music of the Baroque has played a major role in reviving interest in Bologne—born in Guadaloupe to a plantation owner father and a slave mother—who for a period in the late 18th century blazed across French culture as a violinist, conductor, composer and legendary swordsman.

Bologne managed to overcome racial prejudice during his heyday, but his role as a member of the King’s Bodyguard (hence his title of chevalier, or knight) and as one of Queen Marie Antoinette’s music teachers landed him in jail. While he swore allegiance to the French Revolution and avoided the Reign of Terror, he was ruined and died in 1799 at age 54.

Symphony No. 1 is one of two symphonies Bologne is believed to have composed in France and one of the few pieces that survived his long fade into obscurity. It is a breezy piece that repeats themes in each of its three movements. Bologne was a maven for strings and the Music of the Baroque ensemble for this piece was all strings except for two French horns and a clarinet.

Following Montero’s impressive solo on Piano Concerto No. 21, the orchestra completed the concert with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major. Brilliant in its own right, this symphony has an amazing back story.

Mozart composed his final three symphonies, starting with No. 39, over a month and a half in the summer of 1788. It is not clear why he dashed out these three enduring pieces so quickly, though there are music historians who posit that he may have conceived the three as a unitary piece. It also is unclear why Mozart, who remained otherwise productive, stopped writing symphonies; he obviously did not know that he would fall desperately ill three years later and die at age 35, at great loss to the music world.
Symphony No. 39 opens ominously with an Adagio that pairs the strings with brass and a thundering drum. It quickly settles into more lyrical Allegro passages in which strings prevail. The second movement Andante con moto again starts off with dramatic themes before settling into a more pastoral mood.

The rest of the symphony is a happy romp. The Menuetto—Trio is based on an Austrian folk dance. The closing Allegro is relentlessly upbeat marked by energetic violin runs. With the orchestra responding to Glover’s animated conducting, the audience certainly received a Mozart’s birthday present.

Music of the Baroque returns with its London Calling concerts on Sunday, February 26, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts and Monday, February 27, at the Harris Theater. Led by Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas Kraemer, the concert features works composed by Boyce, Handel, Mozart and Hadyn when they resided in London. Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major is worth the price of admission alone because he composed it at, ahem, the age of 8.