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Concert review: Oklahoma City Philharmonic features two debuts

11.22.11
Shai Wosner
Oklahoman

By Rick Rogers

Two Austrian composers — one, the most celebrated representative of music's classical period, the other, a late romantic who pushed the boundaries of symphonic writing — were thrust together on the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's recent “Mozart & Mahler” concert.

The occasion marked the Philharmonic debut of Shai Wosner, a young Israeli pianist whose playing of Mozart's “Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488” was noted for its clarity, its evenness, and most of all, its beauty.

During the work's long orchestral introduction, Wosner silently ran his fingers across the keys, a mannerism that was frequently repeated during periods of rest. At other times, Wosner would conduct or keep his hands animated, much like the athlete who runs in place as he waits to cross a busy street.

The playing, however, was completely devoid of any unnecessary gestures. In the first movement cadenza, for example, Wosner conveyed a sense of anticipation, even of capriciousness at times.

In the lovely Adagio, Wosner's tasteful playing drew the listener into Mozart's hushed sound world, suggesting a chamber music experience of great intimacy. Every attack and release was meticulously prepared, a thoughtful approach that left nothing to chance.

The finale bristled with infectious playing along with an energy that was matched throughout in the orchestral accompaniment. There were no doubts that Wosner was completely invested in the musical process, the result of which was a performance of taste and distinction.

The orchestra also made a debut of sorts with Mahler's “Symphony No. 4 in G Major.” This concert marked its first appearance on the classics series. The Fourth is arguably the least tortured of Mahler's symphonic output, and, clocking in at just under an hour, one of its shortest.

Joel Levine opened the work at a leisurely pace then settled into a tempo that nicely showcased a lovely passage for unison cellos, along with numerous sections that spotlighted the woodwinds. One occasionally heard influences of Richard Strauss, as well as a passage for violins in their uppermost register that hinted at the finale's view of heaven.

Concertmaster Gregory Lee repeatedly swapped instruments throughout the second movement, one featuring a conventional tuning, the other a whole step higher. The latter, along with a subsequent clarinet passage that was playful, gave the impression of a carnival atmosphere.

The third movement is the work's true heart, one whose opening illustrated a layering process that resulted in a rich sonority. Mahler's predilection for frequent modulations also proved to be a constant source of variety for the ear.

The finale, which suggests a child's view of heaven, is alternately pastoral and lively. Soprano Sari Gruber gave splendid voice to the youthful observer, her voice capable of richness and subtlety as the music demanded.

From hushed sonorities to the sounds of shimmering flutes and sleigh bells, the Mahler Fourth offered listeners a rare and fascinating journey. I also liked the idea of the concert's M&M theme. How about heading west from Austria into Switzerland and France with Frank Martin and Darius Milhaud? What a concert that could be!