Mozart reminds us that nothing in life should be taken too seriously.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
July 19, 2014

As the crowd gathered beneath the illuminated concrete ribs of the Utzon Room, the repetitive drone of tuning violins floated upon the air. “You can tell it’s live when you hear them warm up,” someone remarked loudly. Obvious though it might have seemed, there could be no truer statement. The tactility and intimacy of the chamber setting offers a unique shared experience between musician and audient, and the Australian Haydn Ensemble’s second performance of the year was testament to this.

Beginning the program was the String Quartet Op. 39 No 3 by Boccherini – a skilled cellist and prolific composer whose work has been frequently neglected by contemporary performers. While the beginning was tentative, lead violin Paul Wright confidently led the way, ultimately careening through the work. The tricky scalic and intervallic passages of the opening movement fuelled a constant energy, yet rhythmic and tonal clarity was sometimes lacking between members of the ensemble. As the evening progressed though, the performers clearly relaxed into themselves and the music.

A greater cohort of musicians appeared for the second piece. Woodwind, horns and low strings joined the existing ensemble, in an ‘amplified’ arrangement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 71 No 2 by Paul Wranitzky. While it is common for larger works to be reduced, the opposite is not so common. In doing so, Wranitzky has created a more complex and overwhelming aural experience. His orchestration comes to full fruition with the lush texture of the middle movements. Again, the ensemble seemed a little unsettled, with the horns too eager on some of their entries. Perhaps more unsettling though was the audience’s hesitant clapping between movements. No one seemed sure whether to applaud after the triumphant ending of a movement or at the very conclusion of a piece, and as a result, a smattering of uncertain applause disrupted every piece.

The instability of the opening works was finally replaced by a concrete sense of togetherness and ensemble in Haydn’s Concerto No 1 for Two Lira Organizzata in C Major. It would be difficult to imagine the solo voices performed by lira organizzata or hurdy gurdy (as originally scored), considering the agility with which they were played by oboe (Amy Power) and flute (Melissa Farrow). Haydn’s work is strangely delicate and yet dominating, with the driving pulse provided by the low strings.

Closing the evening was the program’s namesake, The Musical Joke by Mozart. The four-movement work is fraught with poor compositional practices, and is a parody of the institution of classical music. While most of the academic satire might have fallen on deaf ears, there was no ignoring the outrageous dissonance of the concluding chord. Try as he might to brashly celebrate musical incompetence, “there’s still plenty of joyous…intelligence in the Musical Joke”, as Anthony Albrecht’s program notes state. This aside, Mozart removes classical music from its pedestal of reverence and reminds us that nothing in life should be taken too seriously.

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