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Review: Present Music's playlist of Mozart, Adams evokes outdoor pleasures

If summer has to end, then Present Music found a fitting way to say farewell with a concert Saturday evening that suggested both outdoor music and road trips.

Artistic director Kevin Stalheim has programmed a PM season that points up connections between the music of living composers and that of their classical ancestors. To underline that intent, PM opened Saturday's concert at the UWM Zelazo Center with Mozart's Serenade No. 10, the famed "Gran Partita" (the piece that opens Salieri's mind to Mozart's genius in the movie "Amadeus"). He built on the instrumentation of the wind bands of his time, which often played in gardens or for social events, crafting what might informally be called a little symphony for 13 musicians. Oboist Katie Young Steele poured out one moment of liquid grace after another.

John Adams' "Hallelujah Junction" (1996), named for a Nevada-California truck stop, brought on pianists Cory Smythe and Yegor Shevtsov for an encounter best described as a boisterous conversation for four hands — sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes reinforcing, occasionally bickering. Their feisty interplay earned two callbacks from the enthusiastic audience.

Humorously, their modes of working also reflected this concert's past-meets-present theme — Smythe played his paper score with the aid of a human page turner, while Shevtsov read his music from a computer tablet.

Eric Segnitz delivered Luciano Berio's "Sequenza VIII" (1976) for solo violin, a show piece that delves deeply into the history of the instrument's technique. The hushed silence the audience offered the quiet final notes paid tribute to Segnitz's skill.

PM finished the evening with Adams' "Grand Pianola Music" (1982) for 23 musicians, with pianists Smythe and Shevtsov at the heart of it. While the word pianola suggests a preprogrammed player piano, this piece was full of surprises, including a gentle, pastoral segment for the two pianists and tubist Matt Gaunt.

Its secret weapon? Sopranos Chelsie Probst and Christina Kay and mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, whose wordless vocals sometimes colored the ensemble and other times took over from the pianists the essential pulsing that drives Adams' ethereal vehicle down the highway.

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