Arthur Miller once wrote that “Mozart is happiness before it has gotten defined.” This month, the National Symphony Orchestra has captured that happiness and submerged audiences in it within the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The “Mozart Forever” concert series, which runs June 14–22, packs an array of masterpieces from one of the world’s most beloved composers—from the playfulness of Le nozze di Figaro overture to the drama of the G-minor symphony featured in the 1984 movie Amadeus.
At the second concert in the series, the NSO presented a collection of pieces that provided just the right combination of tranquility and intensity. By incorporating a mixture of musical forms(opera, symphony, and concerto), but also two parallel pieces (Mozart’s only two symphonies in G minor), the concert offered both variety and unity.
Natalie Stutzmann has led the NSO throughout the series, bringing both charisma and joy to her work. Stutzmann, the chief conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway, generally centers her repertoire on the great German Romantics and French impressionists. But, as she put it in a pre-concert interview with the radio station Classical WETA’s Rich Kleinfeldt, “I like to stay really open, and I hope people would not immediately put me in a box. . . . I do everything; I do everything I love.” Indeed, in her performance at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night, Stutzmann made it clear that Mozart is anything but foreign to her.
She simply embodied the music. Her body swayed with the rhythm and grace of a dance, her expression rose and fell with the changing moods of the pieces, and her sharp breaths punctuated her conducting almost like another instrument. Indeed, a Stutzmann concert is worth seeing from a periphery seat; watching the conductor’s face and hands is almost as inspiring as listening to the music itself.
The evening began with the overture to Don Giovanni. The explosive first chord commanded the stage with as much authority as the titular character of this 1787 opera would. The orchestra relished every flavor of the piece: the playful themes that evoke the infamous don’s carefree and mischievous lifestyle, the rumbling timpani that echo his summons to hell, and the bombastic finish that recalls the opera’s triumphal conclusion. The NSO drove home the entire story of the libertine aristocrat in just six minutes, without a single aria or scene change.
After this grandiose opening, the Symphony No. 25 in G minor reminded audiences that in the steamy heat of a D.C. summer, Mozart is a breath of fresh air. In this piece (the Amadeus one, which Mozart composed when he was just seventeen), dozens of short, rapid notes fluttered by in the allegro con brio movement. And in the steady andante movement, Stutzmann and her musicians shaped the notes with a gentleness reminiscent of a sailboat on a calm, pleasant day.
If the “little” G-minor symphony did not disappoint, the “Great” G-minor counterpart that closed the concert, Symphony No. 40, was all the more delightful. This one has a more serious aspect (Mozart wrote it close to the end of his life, in 1788), but it is no less vivacious. Stutzmann set a perfect tempo (which does not always happen for this piece), quick but not hurried, steady but not dragging. With refined dynamics, each repetition of the theme sounded new, such that listeners could never get tired of hearing that alluring tune.
But the real smashing hit of the night was the piece between the two symphonies. This concert marked the NSO’s first performance of the Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major, and it could not have been a better inaugural display. Written in 1786 for Mozart’s good friend the horn player extraordinaire Joseph Leutgeb, the piece can be a technical nightmare for even the most talented of musicians. But the soloist, Abel Pereira, executed it with breathtaking finesse and made it look both effortless and enjoyable.
Mozart wrote that “music is not the notes but the silence in between.” This truism applied especially to Pereira’s concerto performance. For almost two minutes in the opening movement, he stood silently, preparing his instrument and glancing at Stutzmann, waiting along with the audience for his entrance. (In a pre-concert interview, he described these expectant minutes as the most difficult ones in the entire piece.) Finally, he let the clean, pure sound of the horn ring out, and a sigh of contentment seemed to sweep through the concert hall.
From start to finish, Pereira played with heart—gently swaying, eyes often closed, a look of tenderness on his face. Such an enchanting performance deserved the lengthy standing ovation it received.
What made the NSO’s presentation of Mozart so memorable was not just its display of technical expertise (which it had), but its spirit of generosity. Each piece was performed not in a pompous or ostentatious manner, which would have been enough to impress but not to inspire. Stutzmann’s passion for conducting and for the music burst forth as she engaged with the orchestra, and the musicians responded in kind. It made for an experience in which the music was not just produced but given. It was Mozart at his best. After all, the composer himself said, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love—that is the soul of genius.” “Mozart Forever” is a reminder that when you find the right performance, you find not just a nice, cultured thing to do that you can chat about with colleagues at cocktail parties. You find a gift, which inspires joy and love and makes every day spent in a crowded, sweltering city just a little more worth your while.