Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Westport Arts Center, The Mozart Project: Frederic Chiu, piano; Geoff Nuttall, violin; Alberto Parrini, cello, Seabury Center, Westport, Connecticut, 8.10.2005 (CA)
Mozart's 250th birthday celebration started early in Westport,
Connecticut with the first concert in The Mozart Project, a year of "chamber music, lectures, and special events." It is the kind of programming that makes audiences happy and critics cringe. Why is it so hard to play Mozart and why is the worst Mozart playing saved for festivals?
But we ventured forth nonetheless on a very wet Saturday evening to sit with a sold-out crowd in the straight-backed pews of The Westport Arts Center's Seabury Center to hear a pick-up trio of intense young musicians: pianist Frederic Chiu, artist in residence for the Center, violinist Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet, and cellist Alberto Parrini, the Italian-born cellist of the American Chamber Players.
Of course, part of the problem with performances of Mozart is that they rarely convey any sense of the innovative genius of the music and everything comes out sanitized—easy listening for the dentist's office. Chiu introduced the evening's pieces and made it clear that what we now find familiar was anything but to Mozart's audiences. Chiu also admitted that he was not a Mozart specialist. Perhaps a good indication that he hadn't learned the secrets of sanitizing.
The first challenge, probably the most familiar of Mozart's piano sonatas, K. 331 in A Major, often referred to by its final movement, was the Turkish March. Chiu showed remarkable concentration and precision in his playing. Every phrase was so cleanly articulated that he didn't seem capable of missing a note. It's a style that allows for plenty of nuance without sentimentality.
Chiu cuts an elegant figure at the piano, in his black Chinese coat with the turned back cuffs to reveal a bright green lining, his hair pulled back tightly into a ponytail. His body barely moves as he plays—his head looking straight ahead even as his eyes are usually closed—his arms and hands doing the work. This is not flashy to look at, but there's plenty of flash in the playing. In fact, it's exhilarating to hear Mozart performed with such clarity.
It turns out that Chiu and Nuttall have often performed together and it's not surprising, because their tone and style are well matched. They chose the sonata for piano and violin in Eb Major, K. 496. In a period when most sonatas were still of the soloist plus continuo variety, this sonata shows Mozart the innovator giving equal importance to the two parts, with both having their share of virtuoso playing.
Nuttall, with his spiked hair and wild gyrations, looks something like a rock star when he's playing, but the sound he makes is sweet and pure; a focused tone that he is able to maintain at different speeds and dynamics. And it is this purity, matched with Chiu's precision that make them such a compelling duo for Mozart. The give and take between the players as they passed the themes back and forth was evident in a way that made it more enjoyable, as if we in the audience were actually participating.
And the same can be said of the playing when Parrini, an attractive musician who neither emotes with his body nor sits in near rigidity when he plays, joined to make the trio. In this case, Parrini spent a year recently as cellist to Nuttall's first violin in the St. Lawrence quartet. So rather than three styles of playing seeking some middle ground, the three made a whole greater than the sum of their parts. This is what chamber music is supposed to be.
In Mozart's Trio in G Major, K. 496 of 1786, we hear the cello striking out on its own, really an historic moment after more than a century of doubling the bass line with the keyboard. And by 1788 , when Mozart composed his Trio in E Major, K. 542, the second trio performed, the cello becomes an equal partner. Mozart takes full advantage of his options to pass the melody about and create new musical permutations that were unfamiliar, surprising, and sometimes disturbing to audiences of his day.
There were a couple of minor moments in the playing when the cohesion of the players came unglued, but the more they played the better they sounded. They really were listening to each other, playing off of each other, and there was the sense of spontaneity As the trio explored, new aspects of the music were revealed. There was nothing trite, careless, or worn-out sounding.
The Mozart project continues throughout the year and there is information about the events on the center's Web site, With Chiu as inspirational leader it seems likelythat there will be much good music to be had.