If you’re like me, conversations about the line between Classical and Romantic music can cause you to shudder at memories of cramming for music theory tests in middle school. Composers in Vienna in the late eighteenth century certainly didn’t label themselves that way. Even for E. T. A. Hoffman, the writer and music critic who inspired much of the Romantic movement as we know it, the “Romantics” were not Schumann or Schubert, but instead Mozart and Haydn. The title of “Classical Vienna,” the latest installment of a performance and lecture series hosted by the Aspect Foundation at Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, then, is accurate only in retrospect.

This program—a Haydn string quartet and a Mozart clarinet quintet performed by the Orion Quartet and Alexander Bedenko—teased out some of the early strains of Romanticism that were making themselves heard in Vienna in a time when Enlightenment ideas, political rumblings, and caffeine buzzes caused by the emergence of coffeehouses led to a more “discursive” mode of expression in music and made the Romantic composer possible. Elliott Forrest, a radio host at 105.9 WQXR, filled in as lecturer for the music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson, who prepared the materials for the accompanying talk.

Vienna in Haydn and Mozart’s time was at the crossroads of European culture. “The genius of Vienna was that it always harmonized national and linguistic opposites in itself. Nowhere was it easier to see a European idea of community,” Forrest said. People from across Europe gathered in coffeehouses to discuss the ideas of writers like Voltaire, whose work caused them to rethink the relationship between reason and authority, tradition and innovation.

This enthusiasm for Enlightenment ideas influenced musicians, as well. Joseph Haydn was steeped in Vienna’s musical culture from the age of eight, when he was recognized as a musical prodigy and brought to the city as a chorister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral (he was fired in 1749 when the Empress of Austria complained about the pubescent teenager’s “crowing”). He had more success with his organ studies and his compositions. He debuted his Op. 33 in 1781, six string quartets that presented a more “democratic” style than the typical quartets of his time. Instead of one voice carrying the melody and the others providing the accompaniment, each voice held its own, interacting with the others on equal terms.

The Orion Quartet proved themselves excellent conversationalists in their performance of his Op. 50, No. 2, a quartet from 1787 that presents Haydn’s democratic composition style at its most polished. The members of Orion have been performing together for more than thirty years—and the brothers Daniel and Todd Phillips, who share first violin responsibilities, have likely played together for much longer than that. These two, with the violist Steven Tenenbom and the cellist Timothy Eddy, produced a delightfully unified sound.

The Orion Quartet plays Haydn during “Classical Vienna” at Bohemian National Hall. Photo: Majid Aliyev. 

Orion’s technical strengths displayed Haydn’s composition style to unique advantage, as the instruments traded melodic statements almost seamlessly, like members of a relay team handing off a baton. Their trills, turns, and other ornamentation, so essential to conveying the “refined” tone of classical compositions, sounded bright and clear, perfectly harmonized and timed.

Orion’s technical excellence displayed Haydn’s composition style to unique advantage, as the instruments traded melodic statements almost seamlessly, like members of a relay team handing off a baton.

Alexander Bedenko joined the Orion Quartet for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K 581. Mozart arrived in Vienna, effectively in exile from Salzburg, in 1781, the year that Haydn premiered his Opus 33 string quartets and just after the “Enlightened despot,” the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, assumed rule over Austria and began his Enlightenment-inspired program of education, sanitation, and other reforms.

Success for Mozart fluctuated in Joseph II’s Vienna, a city in which the longstanding patron­–musician relationship was shifting. Effectively one of the first musical freelancers, Mozart took on projects from various benefactors, with whom he fell in and out of favor. He was often on the edge of financial ruin, but his operas (his true musical love) were generally well received, and he thrived in the company of other famous musicians. Particularly germane to this program, Mozart performed Haydn’s Op. 50 with its composer. In 1789, he dedicated a cycle of six quartets to Haydn, asking him to be his “musical father.”Alexander Bedenko joined the Orion Quartet for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K 581. Mozart arrived in Vienna, effectively in exile from Salzburg, in 1781, the year that Haydn premiered his Op. 33 string quartets and just after the “Enlightened despot,” the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, assumed rule over Austria and began his Enlightenment-inspired program of education, sanitation, and other reforms.

But Mozart’s string compositions, including the one under review here, were no mere homages to Haydn. In this quintet, Mozart explores the potential of the clarinet, which had been invented in the late seventeenth century and was still evolving into the instrument we hear today. Its almost vocal quality fascinated Mozart, and this piece, written for the popular clarinetist Anton Stadler, sounds like an aria for the instrument. Forrest noted that Mozart’s sound is more operatic than Haydn’s, a tone that influenced the emotional lyricism of the later Romantic composers, many of whom idolized Mozart.

Bedenko’s rendition of this clarinet “aria” was admirable. Though it was evident in a few delayed entrances that Bedenko lacked the Orion Quartet’s advantage of having performed with his fellow musicians for decades, the clarinet proved itself the most subtle of the five instruments, able to shift color and tone in ways that, now that Mozart Forrest mention the similarity, did approximate that of an agile mezzo-soprano. Bedenko’s sound was at times too soft, but his ornamentation was precise as Orion’s.

Forrest found an apt metaphor in Vienna itself for the relationship between the composers: from the lively conversation of Haydn’s quartet to the more “personal” lyricism of Mozart’s clarinet quintet, classical music moved from the bustling coffeehouse to the upper-class salon.

“Classical Vienna” at Bohemian National Hall. Photo: Majid Aliyev.

From the lively conversation of Haydn’s quartet to the more “personal” lyricism of Mozart’s clarinet quintet, classical music moved from the bustling coffeehouse to the upper-class salon.

According to its mission statement, the Aspect Foundation aims to transform the traditional recital with its “illustrated talks.” This format gives a fuller picture of the works and composers involved and allows for programs built around creative themes, such as last month’s concert of works that inspired and were inspired by the giant of the early Romantic movement, E. T. A. Hoffman. The caliber of musicianship has been impressive, and the Czech Center hosts in style, providing wine and snacks beforehand and at intermission (and cough drops during).

But the “illustrated” aspect of the talks will require some finessing throughout the rest of the season. At both performances, what turned out to be a PowerPoint presentation on a projector screen to the rear of the stage malfunctioned; at this one, the musicians, seemingly unaware of the glitch, played the first notes of the Haydn quartet just as the PC’s background display, open Google Chrome browser and all, finally went dark. Both the speakers and their visual presentations have been awkward and amateurish at times, providing basic information below their audience’s musical IQs at one moment and rapid-fire historical minutiae that fly over the listeners’ heads the next, often with unlabeled visuals that add little to the discussion. The Aspect Foundation would do well to reevaluate its audience and iron its technical wrinkles.

Yet the structure of these concerts is a promising one for the listener interested in learning music history as much as in witnessing musical stardom and in meeting the composer alongside his work. The success or failure of a performance, however, should not be judged by these accessory features, but by the quality of its music. Despite the concert’s quirks, the Orion Quartet and Alexander Bedenko gave a brilliant performance that brought Haydn and Mozart to Manhattan in a night of music and conversation that must have been much like the salons and coffeehouses of classical Vienna.

The Orion Quartet and Alexander Bedenko after “Classical Vienna.” Photo: Majid Aliyev.

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