Mitsuko Uchida, Mahler Chamber Orchestra mesmerize an incandescent Zellerbach Hall

Photo of the Uchida and Mahler Chamber Orchestra concert
May Zircus/Courtesy

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Crossing Mozart titan Mitsuko Uchida with the world-class talent of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) only results in splendor. On March 4, radiant melodies converged in Zellerbach Hall as the Cal Performances program gleamed through eras both baroque and classical, injecting the auditorium with vivid, sapid sound.

The performers were captivating from the concert’s first euphonious note. Moments of fraught, orchestra-buttressed tension were suspended against Uchida’s glimmering gentility in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. The concerto’s exuberant first-movement cadenza spotlighted Uchida’s trademark Mozartian streak, unveiling silk-soft pianissimos cradled within the pianist’s wonder-swathed scales. Darkness seeped into its breath-filled midsection, slipping into imposing interval jumps and light-fingered arpeggios. The solo passage’s denouement was a marriage of expertly executed chromatics and trills; a fermata punctuated its exhalation into a vibrant, violin-driven phrase.

The brilliant pianist is no stranger to Mozart, nor are her illustrious orchestral companions. Notorious for her Grammy Award-winning Mozart Concertos alongside the Cleveland Orchestra, Uchida’s proficiencies led to her collaboration with the MCO as an artistic partner. Now touring internationally with the MCO, Uchida shoulders the mantle of both conductor and soloist on stage, directing ardently while simultaneously flying across the keyboard. 

Uchida’s exquisite treatment of Mozart’s sonic nuance was captivatingly displayed in the concerto’s infamous second movement — a melancholic Adagio rendered in the unconventional key of F sharp minor. Uchida’s tulle-like notes, delicate yet impressionable, crescendoed into a mournful, operatic vortex of sound, marginally levitated in mood by the woodwinds’ luminous interlude. As the orchestra’s sliding bass register rotated each shadow-laden measure into the next, the movement glided into a pizzicato-enveloped extract — a murmuring backdrop for Uchida’s simple yet clarion melody. Upon ending with a somber lightness, the third movement’s vivacious, euphoric rondo was given permission to shimmer with verve.

Following the lingering concerto, the stage carouseled out Uchida’s Steinway for four of Henry Purcell’s fantasias, arranged inventively for the string orchestra. Each an assorted synthesis of instrumental conversations, the MCO excellently demonstrated how the fantasia is a form well-suited for the amalgamation of themes. 

 Fantasia No. 9 was a particular pleaser; layers of shifting harmonies moved under its rippling surface of fluctuating notes. After a sonorous viola solo unraveled into a rich abyss of hurtling scales and interlocking melodies, the orchestra’s jaunty bow movements eventually faded into an unexacting, lucid conclusion. 

No. 13, meanwhile, closed the Purcell set; evincing latent dissonance in its tide of slow, pivoting melodies, it was later abruptly sundered by a throbbing reckoning of torrential rhythms. Uchida’s absence was no impediment to the MCO’s spellbinding allure. Instead, Purcell bestowed the group space to expand, moving in tandem as one sentient being.

The concert’s intermission ended with the reappearance of the grand piano, harbinging the tense, ominous opening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. At times vigorously tense with the upper strings’ serrating ricochets and, at others, sparsely soft and solo-focalized, the theatrical first movement drifted into the reverie-esque Larghetto of the second. Sporting breathy rhythms and a grand, intricate texture, the slower rondo was tethered by triumph and tranquility until its demise.

To Uchida’s sprightly conductorial hands, the notes appeared tangibly tactile, materializing in the air as she directed. Meandering piano and rolling rhythms rounded out the concerto, with flute and oboe interspersing molten light into the third movement’s stern tone of finality. The program’s end left few seats encumbered due to a seemingly unanimous standing ovation, complete with thunderous applause.

Not a single note was misfired as the performers harnessed each partitioned shard of sound into a cohesive stained-glass program, allowing musical dexterity to filter through its colorful translucence. Uchida’s hands flew sylphlike across the keys, fastidious, clear as sunlight and embellished by a shimmering silver shoe on the damper pedal. After ravishing the audience alongside the MCO’s panache and resonance-ornamented mastery, the pianist-maestro’s effulgent smile at the performance’s resolution said it all: She’s a true virtuoso, as prodigious in talent as she is remarkable to watch.

Contact Esther Huang at [email protected].