He conducts the orchestra as if he were playing the piano; his playing is a dance, and beyond that when he speaks, Ignat Solzhenitsyn reveals the writer in his blood. Because of the eloquence and enlightenment they contain, I feel privileged to share selections from my notes of Solzhenitsyn’s introduction to this first of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s five “Mozart@258” concerts.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn © Paul Sirochman
Ignat Solzhenitsyn
© Paul Sirochman
He spoke of Toronto’s tradition of getting “to know the music of this man who flashed like a comet in the Vienna sky and vanished, leaving behind music that we come back to over and over. Mozart is the most accessible of composers, whether we come to him again or for the first time. He is also the impregnable enigma that haunts musicians all our lives. It is  not difficult to play the notes of his music: children can play Mozart. But to find the message of his music takes a lifetime. For me Mozart is like the fairy-tale mirror that shows us ourselves in the present, the past and the future: who we are and who we really can be. Mozart’s greatness is his perfect expression and it is for that we will always come back.”

As a conductor, Maestro Solzhenitsyn is direct. He works without score and without a podium. From the opening phrases of Mozart’s succinct overture to La clemenza di Tito, it was evident the orchestra responded to the gestures of his baton and hand with the crisp immediacy of piano strings to the hammers. The winds were particularly excellent. A sense of the celebration in Mozart’s 1791 commision to mark Austrian emperor Leopold II’s inauguration as King of Bohemia flowed out of the music, and subtle touches came through of the complex character of the opera’s hero, the Roman Emperor Titus Vespasian, reknowned in the opera for a generosity of spirit that rose above court intrigue, and in history for leading the brutal destruction of Judea and the Temple in 70 AD.

For Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18, Solzhenitsyn, like Mozart at his première in 1785, performed as conductor and soloist. He started out standing at the piano to conduct the opening operatic theme, full of Mozart’s joy at escaping to Vienna from the bondage of his patron the Archbishop and the boredom of the Salzburg backwater. The arcadian woodland song of the orchestra blended into the piano part when Solzhenitsyn sat down, conducting with his left hand while with his right he played preternaturally transparent lines fleet and magical with charm. Toronto’s usually savvy audience could not withhold their applause.

Solzhenitsyn’s playing in the slow movement was unusual for its delicacy, limpid clarity and heartfelt tenderness. The orchestral voices flowed like a choir around the solo voice of the piano and I never heard the TSO play better. Sarah Jeffrey’s oboe was outstanding. The glory of the third movement was how perfectly the orchestral soloists responded to Solzhenitsyn’s tonal cues from the piano during the many repeats. His cadenza was elaborate and mercurial in reflecting a multitude of moods before merging with the orchestra like water poured into water.

Solzhenitsyn conducted the Symphony no. 39 from memory, taking a very soft approach to the pompous opening Adagio section and drawing from it an extraordinary blend of colours: operatic, solemn, sad, grave, lyrical, romantic, and finally evoking the gaiety of a grand ballroom. Joaquin Valdepeñas on clarinet did the honours Mozart bestowed on this instrument during the slow, quiet, second movement and the forceful folk themes of the third’s minuet and trio. The music of this movement brought to mind the enigma of Mozart’s music that Solzhenitsyn spoke of in his introduction and brought into my mind a line by John Keats about the enigma of music in his Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Thou... dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity”. The finale was nimble, dramatic and comic with the bold colours of trumpet and trombone. Who could ask for anything more!