Mozart's Piano Concerto 27 is a musical conversation of sorts.
The piano talks to the strings and winds, and they talk back, sounding at times like they are trying to get in the last word.
Then the winds and brass chime in and the strings quiet to a whisper until the piano asserts itself into the conversation.
That's how the piece played out Friday night at Tucson Music Hall with Ann-Marie McDermott at the piano and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in fine form under the baton of guest conductor James Judd.
This was the first time we've seen McDermott with the TSO in years. From what we experienced Friday night, we hope we won't have to wait so long for her encore.
McDermott embodies all the technical skills we have come to expect from her: a firm yet elegant touch that is alternately purposeful and spontaneous. She produces clean, crisp lines where every note speaks for itself, and balances mood and tempo with a fluidity that sometimes added a wholly contemporary sound that could have been written 25 years ago instead of 225 years ago.
But it was what we saw in her expressions, the emotional connection she made to the music, that drew us to her. She winced and squeezed her eyes shut when the music slowed, then smiled as her fingers danced along the keys when the tempo raced. In the second movement, one of the longest piano solos of the 30-minute work, McDermott got lost in sweeping, lush passages. When the mood changed, her expression became almost lighthearted and hopeful.
McDermott will perform the concerto with the TSO again on Sunday, Nov. 11.
The orchestra in the concert's second half performed Elgar's Symphony No 2 in E-flat Major. It was a first for the orchestra, and probably the first time many in the audience had ever heard it. But Elgar is deep in guest conductor Judd's wheel well. The British conductor recorded Elgar's First Symphony and a number of his works over the years.
The pairing of the late 19th century-early 20th century British composer with the 18th century German composer on its surface makes little sense. Except that both works represented the final output of their composers. Mozart died the same year, 1791, that his Concerto 27 was premiered; Elgar died not long after he started composing the followup to Symphony 2.
The Elgar is a nearly hour-long beast. Cinematic gestures give way to nearly bombastic faux finales — booming, clanking exclamations punctuated by howling brass and breakneck, yet melodic strings. Every time Judd led us to what sounded like the finale, we held our breath and waited for that telltale sign that it was over only to have him reign it in with a calm that swept over the hall.
The work is complex with competing musical ideas clashing then coming together before going their separate ways again. In the first movement, strings played at their highest octave echo as horns hang in the air. Elegant passages build to a climax but never quite reach the pinnacle before they are calmed with a low, quiet rumble of percussion. The second movement introduced cinematic sweep that gave way to bold moments of clarity tempered by violins that at times sounded as if they were quietly weeping. The third movement shattered the calm with thunderous percussion clanking and banging in torrents that the strings and brass tried to match, and from the audience we felt sure that that must be the finale.
The Elgar actually ends quiet peacefully, which contradicts everything we had expected. The final movement introduces its grand climax early on, then spends the rest of the time showing off the orchestra's virtuosity in a melodic, sweeping and complex score before ending quietly.