When glancing over the staid portraits of classical composers, with their formal bearing and stern expressions, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that these musicians not only were geniuses of their genre and exquisite technicians, with centuries-true legacies, but passionate, astute showmen and characters of some (not necessarily subtle) humor.
Such was the case with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Joseph Haydn, at least, and guest conductor Bernard Labadie, pianist Robert Levin and the Kansas City Symphony featured lively selections from them Friday night in Helzberg Hall.
Prefacing the concert, Labadie gave a few brief, energetic remarks on the importance of period-appropriate performance practice, with insight into Levin’s style, which emulated Beethoven’s practice with Levin’s own particular flair. The orchestra was reduced to a more 18th-century size.
Levin’s ownership of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was evident in his flexibility, improvisation and confident exuberance.
So often soloists demonstrate passion, exertion, precision— rarely do they look like they are enjoying themselves — but Levin relished the piece, watching the orchestra as keenly as he watched the conductor, pointing a finger with a flourish as he handed the musical reins back to Labadie after extended improvised passages.
He even, after the first movement, smiled to the orchestra as if to say, “That was fun,” then to the audience, allowing and encouraging applause (midwork applause being perfectly acceptable concert etiquette from the period).
He played continuo along with the orchestra between solo segments, the piano adding harmonic texture to the ensemble. Levin was authoritative, declaring the opening statements in his solo passages, melting into soft, sweet themes, then launching the jolly finale, grace notes emboldened.
Labadie, seated to conduct and using small expressive gestures close to the body, directed a subtle interplay of inner voices (a touch of bassoon, firm voicing of second violins, balanced fugal entrances), leading to drastic dynamic shifts.
An overture from Mozart began each half of the concert, with rumbly chords giving way to light hearted themes for “Don Giovanni” and the regal “La clemenza di Tito” adding a little agitation to its energy.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 ended the concert with a celebratory mood, the audience clapping between each movement and standing at the conclusion. The ensemble reveled in the work’s playful nuance, Labadie pulling back the ends of phrases, the solo voices eager and sprightly, including the concluding flourish from harpsichord, Haydn’s final surprising touch in a symphony both ingenious and amusing.