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CityMusic Cleveland revels in Mozart treasures
By Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer

Mozart composed so many works that are planted in the pantheon of transcendent music that it's silly to contemplate entering a Which-Pieces-Are-Greatest Sweepstakes.

CityMusic Cleveland, in other words, had no trouble choosing three sublime Mozart scores for its final program of 2009. All of these irresistible creations show the composer in total command of his sonic resources.

So, what's new?

The program actually revels in freshness, from the local conducting debut of Joel Smirnoff and glorious teaming of violinist Nathan Olson and violist Jessica Oudin to the gleaming artistry of soprano Chabrelle Williams.

Before we go too far, let's not forget CityMusic, an ensemble that is tightly knit, elegant and alive to detail. The orchestra plays Mozart with robust allure and ravishing intimacy, as if the musicians were inhabiting each phrase.

It always helps to have motivation from up front. At Wednesday's opening concert at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Smirnoff – president of the Cleveland Institute of Music and former first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet – shaped performances marked by textural clarity and expressive contrast.

He gave the orchestra ample space to probe the rich demands in the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K. 364. The soloists, Olson and Oudin, wove lines in seamless accord and answered one another with playful or ardent grace.

Olson's tonal silver was an ideal foil for Oudin's bronze-tinged mellowness. They helped stop time in the slow movement and treated the cadenzas as natural extensions of the thematic narratives. Does Mozart get any better than this?

Good question. What's for sure is that he's disarming and tender in the Divertimento in D major, K. 136, which the CityMusic strings played with suave and subtle beauty. By placing violins to his left and right, Smirnoff made sure that the delicious counterpoint could be heard in all its vibrant splendor.

The bliss continued in "Exsultate, jubilate," K. 165, a motet for soprano and orchestra that introduced Williams as poised and sensitive soloist. She sang the piece turning every page of her score but hardly taking a glance at the music.

The soprano savored the buoyant phrases, sending her voice soaring on high. She might make more of the words in the recitative and bring greater rhythmic definition to the acrobatic lines. But Williams exuded Mozartian delight in tandem with Smirnoff and CityMusic company.

Why the program was titled "Mainly Mozart" only became apparent at the end, when Smirnoff led musicians and audience in a piece by an obscure Austrian composer, Franz Xaver Gruber. It's called "Silent Night."