On Sunday, the audience at Verizon Hall expected a tranquil afternoon of Mozart symphonies. They got a fire drill instead. Sirens began blaring just as the lights dimmed for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s final Thanksgiving weekend concert, followed by a disembodied voice instructing patrons out of the Kimmel Center and onto Spruce Street. The interruption, caused apparently by smoke from the onsite catering facilities, lasted around 30 minutes, after which the performance went off without a hitch. I commend the Kimmel staff for maintaining an air of calm during a stressful situation and for reseating concertgoers in an orderly fashion.

Kensho Watanabe
© Irina Belashov

In truth, the event itself could not live up to the extra-narrative commotion. There was excitement to welcome Kensho Watanabe, a former assistant conductor and substitute violinist with the orchestra, back to the podium for the first time in two years, but the all-Mozart program failed to show these particular musicians off to their best abilities. The Philadelphians excel in lush sonorities and evenly produced sound, neither of which suit ideally the lean textures we’ve come to expect from modern-day Mozart performance. An afternoon devoted to one composer also suffers from the problem of sameness. I wish instead that one Mozart symphony had been coupled with a contemporary piece, as has been customary this season with numerous Beethoven traversals.

In the Symphony no. 36 in C major, “Linz”, Watanabe highlighted the seamless architecture and prevailing grace of Mozart’s composition, but the interpretation lacked a personal stamp. Despite the small corps of players onstage, this was big orchestra Mozart, and it came across if the last fifty years of historically informed thinking hadn’t occurred. The Symphony no. 40 in G minor came across with more energy and vitality. Even by traditional standards, the opening Molto allegro was taken at an especially fast clip, with dramatic crescendos and decrescendos in the string theme. This made for a genuinely jarring contrast in the Andante. When the sense of agitation and the initial musical motifs returned in the concluding movement, it gave the sense of an artist (and a person) still wrestling with the same churning demons, coming no closer to resolution.

Between the symphonies, master storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston joined Watanabe and the Orchestra onstage to provide historical context. She spoke of the push and pull between triumph and tragedy that defined Mozart’s life. The ebullience of the “Linz” Symphony, named for the site of its breathless composition, was tempered by the death of Mozart and Constanze’s first child. The Symphony no. 40 also emerged from a cloud of parental grief, perhaps explaining its use of the minor key. Alston is a warm and genial presence, but her narration here felt perfunctory, more suited to a young persons’ concert than a program designed for adults.