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Playing it smart: Mitsuko Uchida

Doing Right by Amadeus

By B.A. Nilsson

Mitsuko Uchida

Union College Memorial Chapel, May 8

here·s an easy way to present an all-Mozart program. He wrote such a quantity and variety of accessible works that there·s little challenge in choosing an attractive assortment. Had pianist Mitsuko Uchida done so, I suspect many in the capacity crowd at Union College·s Memorial Chapel last Monday would have been disappointed.

But she·s not one to take the easy way, and her program reminded us that Mozart·s music is not background music. It·s something to be enjoyed through careful attention, and it will take you on a rich emotional journey, filled with surprises, when you surrender yourself to its complexity.

Uchida chose a program of later works, most with a quirky story attached. Her opener, for instance, the Fantasia in C Minor, was written to complement his recently written Sonata in C Minor, and the two were first published together with the intention that they should be performed as a single unit.

And so the first half of the concert was dominated with this sweeping work, essentially a five-movement prelude (the Fantasia) to the three-movement Sonata. It·s a dark piece, appropriate to the key, foreshadowing Beethoven-esque dynamic contrasts while still able to break into Mozart·s characteristic grin. The music is elegant, but it·s breaking free of the strictures of the dances from which these movements derived.

As a Mozart interpreter, Uchida runs to the Gieseking school, in which phrasing is loose and an overall sense of gentleness provides the baseline from which the more forceful dynamics emerge.

The two sonatas on the program·s second half also were late works, by which time Mozart was defying many conventions·including that of the big finish to a big movement. Uchida·s touch is so deft that she imbued the penultimate chord in those situations with a power that wasn·t merely about volume, and then finished with a chord of such delicacy that you·d swear she never even touched the keys.

By the time she closed the first half with the Adagio in B Minor, it was clear that she has the Count Basie-like ability to play the spaces between the notes and make them an equally compelling part of the mixture. The Adagio is a strange, mysterious piece that sets an otherworldly mood, and seduced me into forgetting for a while that I was in a concert hall.

The Sonata in F Major never got its own finale, so Mozart tacked on a Rondo to make it a complete work; this and the Sonata in D Major completed the concert. Uchida made a game of the pauses in first sonata·s development section; the slow movements were especially compelling, sung like arias that combine accomplishment and wisps of regret.

How do you listen to this kind of music? We·ve had it in the background of our lives for so long that a concert like this is necessary to remind us what magic active listening provokes. And if we can listen with ears attuned to the period·knowing about sonata-allegro form, about key relationships, about what to expect from a rondo·we·ll appreciate all the more the delightful surprises packed into the works.

Some in the audience came to worship at the Shrine of Uchida, whose international reputation has won her those classical groupies; some came to nap; but many were there for the music and were appropriately carried away. (Although this audience showed more skill in punctuating end-of-movement silences with their eructations·and what·s with octogenarians and their candy wrappers?)

Uchida tossed us a fast one with her first encore, one of Schoenberg·s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19 (no. 2), which actually underscored Schoenberg·s classical roots. Then, for those who hadn·t fled, she gave us one more taste of Mozart, the opening of his Sonata in C, a glorious way to end.

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