Entitled Le Mozart Noir, the current instalment of the K-W Symphony’s Baroque and Beyond series focuses on the French composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1739-1799): classical music’s Jackie Robinson.
Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy sugar and coffee planter and his slave Nanon. Considering the circumstances of his birth and contemporary ideas about the station deemed appropriate for non-whites, it is a miracle that Saint-Georges received the tuition necessary to become the concertmaster of, what was at the time, one of the most well-regarded orchestras in Europe. His skills in more private arenas were legendary in Parisian circles and earned him the nickname The Black Don Juan.
When his attention was not diverted elsewhere [*ahem*], Saint-Georges found the time to compose symphonies and concerti, two of which were on the program Wednesday evening at First United Church in Waterloo. Double concerti were all the rage in Paris just before the turn of the 19th century and violinists Linda Melsted and Anita Walsh joined the orchestra for Sinfonia Concertante No. 13 in G major.
While they play Baroque music (more or less) for this series, the KWS doesn’t use period instruments or bows. Walsh, the orchestra’s principal second violin, used a modern setup while Melsted, a committed Baroque player, used a Tourte bow with a gut-stringed fiddle. Although the choice was a bit puzzling, for the most part, the odd instrument out held its own.
Walsh and Melsted are fine players in their own right but are not used to playing with each other. The concerto has plenty of solo passages to augment the duo bits and it was those moments that were excellent. Joint odysseys to the far reaches of the E string were enthusiastic, but ultimately, disappointing.
On occasion, Walsh’s robust, thoroughly modern sound trampled Melsted’s nuanced but more diffuse approach in the fortissimo passages. These small blips aside, it is always lovely to hear a member of the orchestra in a solo capacity.
Saint-Georges’ pretty Symphony In G Major Op 11 No. 1 followed. Sounding very much like early Mozart, the symphony is a thoroughly pleasant way to while away a quarter hour, but I am not in any particular rush to make it part of my record collection.
Last on the program was Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in B flat Major K319. It was written a few years before Saint-Georges’ work but within the first four bars reveals itself to be far more original. The full-bodied, well-balanced sound conductor Simon Streatfield got out of the orchestra belied its miniature size and zippy tempo choices gave the piece energy throughout. Happily, the rogue horn playing in the first half settled down considerably for this piece.
In the context of Mozart’s oeuvre, Symphony No. 33 is of little importance but that is not to say it is without its charms. The opening movement contains the theme of the stupendous fugue in the fourth movement of his last symphony and the second movement features a cheeky shifting of the melody from a strong to weak beat giving the whole endeavour a feeling of trying to walk on land after being at sea for some time.
With each season, the programming for the Baroque and Beyond Series is getting better and better. The links between pieces are more cogent, the standard of playing is increasing, largely due to stronger conducting, and the audiences are getting bigger. With the papers full of stories about the world crashing down around us, discovering something that is really working is rather refreshing indeed.
The next Baroque and Beyond concert: George & Edward is scheduled for April 1 (Waterloo), April 3 (Guelph) and April 4 (Cambridge). All 8 p.m. starts.