Uri Caine brought his Mozart Project to town Friday night, and while purists might have shuddered at his layering of new sounds upon old, the question wasn't whether he had the right to deface Mozart. He does, of course.
The more salient test was whether Caine did anything interesting while he was up there with his can of Day-Glo spray paint.
With an ensemble of bass, drums, violin, trumpet and clarinet, the pianist would play some patches pretty much as written - say, a section from one of Mozart's
- and surround them with more modern material. Jazz, contemporary classical and klezmer were woven in, but the sounds of pure Mozart would often come back.
"Shattering barriers," is the way Caine's press materials describe the project, which has toured widely. He has "shaken off literalism and restored to ordinary musicians the rights of improvisation and interpretation that they enjoyed in Mozart's time. At last, an artist dares to adapt classical music, interpreting and improvising on it in a personal way."
Lofty, pretentious language. Maybe Caine has forgotten reinterpretation's uninterrupted history in which, most recently, Luciano Berio, Claude Bolling and Peter Nero have adapted old sources and styles to their needs.
In practice, too, much of Caine's 90-minute concert at the University of the Arts' Gershman Hall - presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society - came off as very sophisticated jargon. At the keyboard, his sense of phrasing tended to be mannered rather than harmonically or melodically pioneering. Some of the magic that can come with musical transformation was lost in unusually thick clutter. The Queen of the Night's first aria sounded like she ended up in a 12-car pile-up on the Schuylkill Expressway.
Caine surrounded himself with smart talent, in particular bass player Michael Formanek and violinist Joyce Hammann. And his best move came when he started Mozart's "Rondo Alla Turca" not with Mozart, but with a recording of a chant-like voice. Could it have been a Turkish singer? It might have been nice to know. But when Mozart made his entrance, and Caine exerted his personality, all of music seemed like one small club.