BSO Charts Rise and Fall of Austrian Empire

The Bilkent Symphony Orchestra will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Sinfonie Concertante in E flat major KV. 364 and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major on Thursday and Friday October 1 and 2. The BSO has made a bold choice in pairing these bookends of Viennese cultural hegemony.

Mozart's concertante, composed in 1779, is a masterpiece of the late Baroque. When originally scored, Mozart wrote for the 18th-century viola in D major as opposed to E flat and tuned the viola a semitone sharper to bring out the voicing of the larger and more deeply toned instrument. (Rarely do violists use this technique today; one wonders if the sublime Naoko Shimizu will sharpen her strings.) In fact, the concertante has also been arranged for the cello, which would deepen and darken - and thus modernize - the piece. The lower tones tend to temper some of Mozart's inherent cheerfulness. Nonetheless, the concertante is very accessible for the average listener as it is scored in three rationally related movements.

Renowned violinist Rachel Podger remarks on performing the concertante: "It is such a beautifully crafted masterpiece with those memorable, elegant and distinctive themes in the first movement and both soloists weaving in and out of symphonic textures, the remarkable poignancy of the second movement with its dramatic dialogue which is then dispersed by sheer delight and comic playfulness in the Presto." The concertante definitely has a beginning, middle, and end, as opposed to much modernist music. This order resulted from and reflected the Enlightenment age when Mozart composed, when music, to please a patron, had to make rational sense.

In contrast, Mahler's Symphony No. 4, easily his most accessible (lacking his later discordant brooding), is nonetheless a modernist masterpiece depicting conflicting emotions about traditional academic music. Viewed within the wider body of his work, the listener will hear that No. 4 reflects Mahler's nostalgia for what must have seemed in 1901 to be the naïve, pre-industrial orderliness of Enlightenment composition. This sentimentality for the halcyon days of symphonic music would of course reflect to Mozart, the master of pre-Romantic musical rationality. Nicely balanced, BSO.

What the pieces have in common is Vienna. It was in the period 1799 to 1781 that Mozart attracted the attention of Emperor Joseph, even though the composer was then living in Salzburg. The Emperor's approval (although qualified) situated Mozart in the 18th-century cultural center of the Austrian Empire. Mahler, conversely, composed in the late-19th-century seat of the Dual Monarchy, a time when Viennese Secessionist geometry dominated artistic life in the great city.

If the BSO had chosen one of Mozart's later, more adventurous, compositions, the juxtaposition with Mahler would have carried far different connotations, as would also be the case if they had not chosen this most atypical, warm, and lyrical, Mahler retrospection.

The BSO will give the Bilkent community an opportunity eavesdrop on this musical conversation across centuries, one that celebrated the intellectual order of the Enlightenment, albeit briefly, in the midst of the 19th- and 20th-century explosion of self-referential, phenomenological art. Should be fun.

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