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Program of music’s notorious jokesters

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Pianist Conrad Tao, a familiar fixture with the Santa Fe Pro Musica over the past years opened that organization’s new season last weekend. After playing a solo recital on Friday night, Tao joined the Pro Musica Orchestra at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday and Sunday for two performances of two piano concertos, one by W.A. Mozart and one by Dimitri Shostakovich. A Joseph Haydn symphony rounded off the program conducted by Music Director Thomas O’Connor – a program of music by three of music’s most notorious jokesters.

In music as in literature the first element to fall to the passage of time is humor. Jokes too quickly become unintelligible as the social or idiomatic landscape changes. Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, the most popular of his group of Paris Symphonies, takes its nickname “The Hen” (La Poule) from what sounded to contemporary listeners as chicken-like clucking in the first movement.

The work is replete with musical jokes beyond the chicken, though unfortunately mostly lost on modern audiences. But Haydn incorporates his jokes with such skill that even if the satire goes unrecognized, the beauty of the music remains.

The opening has all the gravitas of Mozart in minor key, yet the second “chicken” theme is purely playful papa Haydn. O’Connor deftly led the music vacillating between the two themes which could not be more different.

The comically pompous finale took on a brilliance of airy agility full of sparkling dance rhythms.

Placing the Shostakovich between the two classical works proved an excellent idea, causing us to hear each work with fresh ears. The Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings is not exactly a duo concerto (the piano part is significantly larger) but it does call upon the trumpet (Brian Shaw) to illuminate certainly crucial passages, especially the lovely theme of the second movement.

Tao’s playing was bold and decisive, much in the Russian style of playing, and much the way the composer himself would have played it. More than merely dazzlingly technical, Tao also brought out the comedy of this musical satire, especially in the final Allegro, which is often described as quasi circus music. O’Connor masterfully held together all these wildly competing musical forces, especially his energetic pianist, as rambunctious as a young stallion out of the gate.

The youthful Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat “Jeunehomme,” is often thought to be Mozart’s first great masterpiece, full of surprises for contemporaries who would have expected certain formalities of style. Here Tao well demonstrated that his talent is more than that of a brilliant technique. His playing remained bold but with a grace necessary to the subtleties of the music.

This was a deeply felt, passionate and consummate account, full of emotional drama, even operatic at moments. Finally, a delicious sense of mischief informed the Rondo capping off Sunday’s afternoon of music-making of the highest order.

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