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In contrasting Mozart concertos with the CSO, pianist Mitsuko Uchida blends depth, charm

Submitted by on Mar 29, 2013 – 1:29 pm

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Mitsuko Uchida, pianist and conductor, at Orchestra Hall through March 30. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

While it wasn’t quite the alpha and omega of Mozart’s numerous ventures into the piano concerto, the two works pianist Mitsuko Uchida performed March 28 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did offer a telling perspective on a composer on top of the world and one who had seen all too much of it.

The two essays in question, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453, and Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595, extend Uchida’s annual appearances with the CSO doing pairs of Mozart concertos in the dual role of pianist and conductor. The two performances also provided a splendid reminder of Uchida’s pianistic elegance and of her singular rapport with Mozart as creative thinker as well as exponent of the piano.

In her twin capacities for these Mozart affairs, Uchida invariably comes across as an exceptionally communicative, indeed embracing, pianist, an impression that reaches in both directions – forward to the chamber-size ensemble she faces and, remarkably enough, out to the audience which must content itself with gazing at her back. What one senses so powerfully from the house is her connection with the musicians before her, a seamless interweaving of piano and orchestra into whole musical cloth.

Everything flowed from the piano. In the G major concerto, one of six piano concertos Mozart composed in the single explosive year 1784, Uchida’s crisp, sparkling touch and singing lines were reflected in vivacious playing by the little troupe of strings and winds. (Both the G major and B-flat major concertos were written for the same make-up of strings plus pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns, and one flute.)

If Mozart’s piano concertos typically evoke the lyrical aura and the comedy of opera, the slow movement of the G major rather suggests something more spiritual, perhaps a prayerful movement from a mass. Uchida imbued this reflective music with soulful quiescence, and the orchestra echoed her in luminous understatement.

The mere seven years that separate the G Major and B-flat Major concertos describe a far greater arc in Mozart’s fortunes. By the early months of 1791 his health was failing, he was financially pressed and, not least, his artistic star was on the wane. He would be dead within the year. The B-flat Major concerto bears the clarity and economy of a worldly-wise composer, and Uchida captured this concision in a performance of effortless precision and grace – right through a closing rondo marked by a kind of qualified joy.

While Uchida’s keyboard playing was little short of magical in both concertos, and the musical sums were formidable, her collateral work as conductor was less convincing. Perhaps only the effect matters, not the means, but the sterling support that Uchida enjoyed was more than her generalized directorial effort might have elicited. Here as in the past, she wasn’t really conducting at all. Gesturing empathetically, enveloping the musicians perhaps, inspiring to be sure; but the flick of a hand coming up from the keyboard was often behind the beat – though the orchestra was not, thanks to the guiding presence of concertmaster Robert Chen.

Indeed, despite her dual billing, Uchida passed altogether on the chance to lead the program’s third work, Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.” Chen steered the diminutive string band, all standing except for the cellos, like the violins of some 18th century margrave. The CSO strings delivered this inexhaustibly charming music with mint-fresh vitality.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Pianist Mitsuko Uchida. (Photo by Jean Radel) Descending: Mitsuko Uchida contemplates Mozart. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni) Mitsuko Uchida regularly appears with the Chicago Symphony in the dual roles of pianist and conductor. (Photo by Jean Radel) Chicago Symphony concertmaster Robert Chen. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg) 

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