The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, March 22.
What I love most about classical music (and by this I mean music of the classical period, roughly 1750 to 1820) is its irrepressible buoyancy. Composers then didn’t think of music as self-expression (that began in the romantic period that followed), so angst and pain rarely weigh down their compositions. Mozart, for example, wrote some of his loveliest, airiest pieces during some of the darkest times in his life.
I love tense, impassioned music as much as the next person, but there’s something very special about those bright classical works. To me, they express an unearthly sense of innocence. It’s as if the music is coming from a different plane, a world without suffering or trouble.
I went to Thursday’s concert feeling moody and glum. Work had been frustrating, the skies were grey, and Sean had to work late and couldn’t join me. Then the concert began—Haydn’s lilting “La Reine” symphony followed by one of Mozart’s piano concertos, with the glorious Mitsuko Uchida as soloist—and the music was so radiant and clean, so unaffected and blithe, that all those petty concerns evaporated. That’s the power of classical music.
The Haydn was good but not particularly memorable, though the orchestra’s playing, led by conductor Colin Davis, was crisp and superbly phrased. Haydn just always feels like second-tier Mozart to me. His compositions are strong, but the melodies rarely sing the way Mozart’s do. That’s an unfair standard—Mozart was an extraordinarily gifted melodist—but given the structural similarities between the two classical composers’ works, when given a choice between them, I don’t think it’s much of a choice. Mozart’s wondrous melodies raise his music above Haydn’s virtually every time.
And indeed it was Mozart I had come to hear. Uchida is an acclaimed interpreter of his piano works, and rightfully so. She has the ideal touch: energetic and expressive but not overly effusive. She shapes phrases lightly, dancing over the keys with what seems like pure joy.
Other talented soloists try to bludgeon you with their virtuosity, but Uchida doesn’t need show pieces to impress. I once heard her play as an encore one of Mozart’s simplest sonatas, a piece I remember playing, along with countless other students, when I was about nine years old. But Uchida played it so perfectly and with such effortless vivacity that it gleamed like a rare gem.
As I expected, the concerto was a delight. The orchestra balanced the piano beautifully, and Uchida was lovely, never heavy with her cadences or overwrought with her runs, always light and bright and sparkling. She looked as though she was bubbling over with sheer happiness, and that came across in the music. I don’t know how anyone could listen and not feel happy, too.
I considered leaving at intermission, so content was I with Uchida’s exquisite performance of the Mozart, but I enjoy Schubert, too, so I returned to my perch in the balcony. But I confess I didn’t really get into the romantic symphony. The orchestra was just as wonderful as before, but I wasn’t in the mood for sturm und drang—aching suspensions over taut harmonies.
Nothing against Schubert. I think it comes down to what you feel like at a particular moment. The classicists’ elevated purity can feel like facile detachment if you want something raw, some kind of pained, recognizable humanity. And romantic, earth-bound beauty can feel empty and indulgent if you’re looking for something grander, less tortured and more refined. I’m painting a stark contrast here, but I think the point holds, and Thursday evening, I felt like looking up. Thursday evening, I felt like gazing at the stars.