The DSO's Mozart Festival: A Homecoming of Wonderful Music

01/28/2017 11:05 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2018

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is in the middle of its February festival, a mostly annual program where all of the concerts focus on one composer for about two weeks. It's Mozart's turn this year, and last night featured three of his concertos.

The real treat last night was where all the soloists came from. As is the case for many of the DSO festivals, its own members are the featured soloists in the concertos, and they didn't disappoint. Kimberly Kaloyanides Kennedy and His-Xin Wu were the first soloists, in the Concertone for Two Violins. (No one is quite certain why it's called a concertone, but we're talking Mozart here, so we're letting that go.)

Their performance was ebullient. A concerto for two soloists is successful only if they work closely together to exchange the themes and harmonies of the melody. Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Wu are so used to playing together, their confidence in one another allowed them to give a masterful, seamless performance that took each other's playing to a remarkable level with confidence, warmth, and joy.

The third movement was especially delightful. It was one of Mozart's small minuets, something he's known for in part because they each feature a distinct theme that is repeated--well, repeatedly. This can become pretty monotonous in a hurry, but Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Wu kept the audience engaged in this final movement with creativity and energy, presenting new interpretations of the main theme with a flourish and an outlook that brought the audience into the piece with a sense of "And then there's this--and this--and don't forget this." Beyond producing good music, Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Wu turned the concerto into more of a pas de deux, and swept the audience off their feet.

Johanna Yarborough filled Orchestra Hall with a rich, clear presentation of Mozart's third Horn Concerto. The French horn is a wickedly difficult instrument to play, since it's possible to create seven or eight different notes while keeping your fingers in the exact same position. This is one of the reasons there aren't many solo pieces for French horn, since the challenges of connecting low notes to high notes can easily turn a solo piece into Concerto for Dumpster Fire and Orchestra.

Ms. Yarborough presented the Mozart with a round, strong tone that made the piece sing, embracing low notes and high notes with graceful arches that delighted the audience and gave the piece the warmth every soloist aims for. The closing part, or movement, allowed Ms. Yarborough to demonstrate her technical mastery of the piece, as she effortlessly made her way through a series of quick melodies without sacrificing volume or clarity. It isn't easy to fill Orchestra Hall with sound, and harder still to fill it with rich sound. Ms. Yarborough was able to achieve the latter with seeming ease.

Last night's final concerto featured Ralph Skiano on clarinet, another instrument that doesn't get much attention in the solo literature of classical music. As last night's concert notes pointed out, Mozart played the viola, an instrument that nicely fills the middle voice of an orchestra, but doesn't get noticed all that much--just like the clarinet.

That made Mozart the perfect composer to write a piece for clarinet, and Mr. Skiano was the perfect soloist to perform it. Coming right after a horn concerto, it would have been understandable if Mr. Skiano had tried to match the previous piece's volume. But this young musician has wisdom beyond his years, and he presented a nuanced performance that reminded everyone why this concerto is an audience favorite; in the hands of the right soloist, it brings the audience closer to the stage, transforming the performance into more of an intimate storytelling. This was especially evident in the second movement, when the piece calls on the soloist to bring the volume down to a whisper. Mr. Skiano took the entire audience with him to that astonishing level of quiet, the sign of a masterful musician, playing in a wonderful hall.

The quality of last night's music was at the very high level DSO audiences have grown accustomed to, thanks to the masterful hand of Music Director Leonard Slatkin. The added bonus was the familiar face of each soloist, as the Mozart Festival became a chance to honor our own. This gave something special to the atmosphere of the concert; it was certainly respectful and dignified, but it also felt like the audience was a large, loving family gathered in the living room, cheering on a loved one who's on TV.

The soloists contributed to this at-home atmosphere as well. Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Wu were beaming when they took the stage, and hugged each other at the end of their performance like friends from childhood. Ms. Yarborough tugged at the heartstrings of every parent when, coming out for her first curtain call, she waived broadly at the box seats and said "Hi Mom" for all to see. While significantly more understated, Mr. Skiano quietly basked in the ovation he received for his performance--a reception that had a delightful element of feminine-toned cheering, reminiscent of, say, a One Direction concert.

Mozart is easy to understand while still being rich with subtleties to explore, which makes it the perfect music for families to listen to, and learn more about the world of classical music. More important, The Mozart Festival is an opportunity for us to honor a part of our community that's too easily taken for granted. Long known to be a car- and sports-crazy town, Detroit has recently received international recognition for being a food destination, and Shinola watches are on the wrists of a wide array of world leaders. The DSO more than deserves part of these new facets of praise for Detroit. Last night's performance was a wonderful reminder of that.

While mostly writing about the world of college admissions, Patrick O'Connor's first writing beat was reviews of Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts.