Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

Fans of the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey have come to expect the unexpected in programming. Musical director Robert W. Butts is a consummate educator and he loves to share his extensive and every-growing musical knowledge with the audience.

Knowing Butts, we would guess that it was irrepressible enthusiasm for the music of a little-known composer that brought an overture by Josef Mysliveçek to the orchestra’s annual Wassail concert, held Jan. 12 at Grace Church in Madison.

The piece, essentially a short symphony in three movements, was an effervescent and melodic introduction to the composer, a close friend of Mozart. Born in Prague some 19 years before the birth of Mozart, Mysliveçek was a busy working musician who had the good fortune to meet the young prodigy and his influential father. The friendship lasted through Mysliveçek’s short life, as evidenced in a touching letter the 21-year-old Mozart wrote to his father, describing a hospital visit to his ailing friend.

The influence of Mysliveçek’s music on Mozart resides in its sprightly and infectious joy. Mozart made no secret of his ability to learn from other composers, and in this case it is evident, even to the layman. Maestro Butts was not wrong in thinking that an audience that came to hear Mozart would enjoy “meeting” Josef Mysliveçek.

Taking a brief detour away from Mozart and friends, the concert continued with a performance by The Gargoyles, a singing group from Grace Church, composed of young men from 7th to 12th grade, who offered a few short selections. The young choristers, who are directed by Dr. Anne Matlack, concluded their presentation with a doo-wop offering, “Sweet Caroline.” As Butts observed, at a Wassail concert, you never know what you’re going to get!

But back to Mozart. The next offering was his Symphony No. 25, familiar to fans of the movie Amadeus from the dramatic way themes from the first movement are used in the film. (Personal note: If you love music and/or movies and have never seen this film, make time to see it. It is truly a masterpiece!)

Butts pointed out that this work, from Mozart’s early adult period—he composed it when he was seventeen—is revolutionary in a number of fairly technical ways. Themes from one movement are used in subsequent movements. There are extreme melodic leaps, giving the abstract music surprising emotional impact. Musicologists have observed that this symphony (one of only two Mozart composed in a minor key) shows marked influence of both Haydn and Glück.

Following an intermission, the program took another brief detour, offering two musical theater songs composed by Butts and presented by soprano Emily Thompson-Schweer. The songs were written for two different works. Though it isn’t easy to put over a song out of its theatrical context, Thompson-Schweer, an opera singer by training, did a good job, particularly in the second number, “I Once Was Young,” from the play, A Night in the Wilde Wild West.

The concert concluded with a true grand climax, the performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, with soloist Sohyun Ahn at the keyboard. The concerto begins with a full three-minute-long orchestral introduction, as if playing a fanfare to welcome the solo piano. This movement, allegro maestoso, is joyful and energetic, and Ahn’s performance combines virtuosic brilliance with emotional impact.

The second movement, marked andante, is probably the most familiar part of the concerto, at least to an audience of a certain age. It was the theme used in the Swedish movie, Elvira Madigan, which enjoyed something of a cult status in 1967. Though the movie has mostly faded from memory, the music, possibly the best part of the film, has retained its reputation as the Elvira Madigan concerto.

The music of the andante is so lush and romantic that it is easy to see it emerging some 50 years later in musical history. It demonstrates, among other things, what a revolutionary Mozart was, composing this passionate music in 1785, at the peak of the classical period.

The concerto ends with a bright, sun-filled allegro vivace assai, again highlighting the brilliant technique of Sohyun Ahn.

And, by the way, wassail refers to an ancient, probably pre-Christian, Anglo-Saxon tradition involving singing (and sometimes drinking) to celebrate the time of year.