Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mozart, Martinů - and Mendelssohn, too

(This weekend's program includes a familiar piano concerto by Mozart and a frequently played symphony by Mendelssohn as well as a little-known work by Bohuslav Martinů. This post is about the Martinů and the Mozart. You can read more about Mozart and Mendelssohn in this post.)

If the idea of “Farm Show Weather” is enough to strike fear in your heart, at least the forecast isn't calling for any snow (knock on plastic-laminated artificial wood substitute). And it is supposed to be warmer on Sunday, even though the forecast high is only at the freezing point...

So if this cold weather has you thinking about taking a trip to warmer places (which at this point might not include Florida), join us this weekend for a concert that starts off in Southern California and ends up in sunny Italy!

And Stuart Malina will be back on the piano bench for one of Mozart's most famous piano concertos.

You can come in out of the cold this Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg – in fact, come by an hour early and warm up with my pre-concert talk before each performance!

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Bohuslav Martinů
If you're like the average classical music lover, you may have looked over the selections on this weekend's concert and thought, “Martin Who?”

Mozart and Mendelssohn certainly need no introduction, but what about this other guy – and what's he doing in La Jolla?

It's the bonus on this program – not just a little-known delight by the equally little-known and generally delightful Czech-born composer Bohuslav Martinů, but a mini-piano-concerto to open the concert with the maestro at the keyboard, as if he needs a warm-up before playing one of the major concertos in the repertoire.

Anyway, in 1950, Martinů composed a short new work for the Musical Arts Association of La Jolla, California, a coastal suburb of San Diego. It was premiered there that fall. They'd asked him for a work for chamber orchestra that was “short, light-hearted, and tuneful” and he responded with what isn't quite a full-blown piano concerto with small orchestra (it's usually described as a “concertante” piece in which the piano, more a part of the orchestra, has a part not quite as soloistic as a traditional concerto). And so he entitled the piece “Sinfonietta La Jolla.”

There's a good performance from a live concert I wanted to post but they managed to lop off the last movement's final few seconds – !!! – so instead, here's a sequence of clips of each individual movement (sorry, just cover art for the graphic – no orchestra to watch...).

( This is a recording with the State Chamber Orchestra of Žilina in northern Slovakia, conducted by Jan Valta, with pianist Maria Singerova, available on the Red Note OMP label. There are other and possibly better recordings available but this is what I could find on YouTube today.)

So, who is Bohuslav Martinů? (And, btw, the ů is a diacritical mark in Czech much like the ř we see (or ought to see) in Dvořák; called an “overring,” basically it means the u is pronounced long, as in fool, when, otherwise, it would be short, as in push).

He was born in the village church tower, where his father was the town watchman and tower keeper. This was an apartment 193 steps above the street so, considering the 12 steps in my home's stairway, I'm guessing that's like a 16th-floor walk-up! But you can read more about his biography, here.

Martinů (2nd/ L), Family & Friends
A prolific composer, Martinů would be classified as a “neo-classical” composer, his style direct, his textures lean and his language well structured but easily discernible and, comforting to those who don't know his music, tonal.

I add this because many people I've known, when faced with an unfamiliar composer from the first half of the 20th Century – one who hails from Central Europe, came of age in Paris in the '20s and went on to teach at no less an intellectually daunting place like Princeton – might assume the worst. Call it “musical profiling.”

And if you want to find out how Stuart Malina discovered Martinů's music, ask him at the “Talk Back” Q&A session after the concert!

By the way, while the “Sinfonietta La Jolla” can be conducted from the keyboard, Stuart told me that he decided – as if the Mozart wasn't challenge enough – to have assistant conductor Gregory Woodbridge stand on the podium in this one (well, more than just stand there...).

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While I'm sure Woodbridge would rather be doing the Mozart, concertos in Mozart's day were designed to be “conducted” by the soloists because conductors hadn't yet been invented, at least in the sense we think of them today. Orchestras were not as big as they are now and the sense of chamber music's intimacy was easier to manage.

It still amazes me (even if it didn't surprise me) to have seen Stuart conducting Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto from the keyboard (as this practice is generally called) – not to mention his party piece, Gershwin's “Rhapdsody in Blue” – and turning it into a grandly expanded piano quintet with maybe fifty or more players rather than just four...

That's one of the things I've always enjoyed about their collaborations – this orchestra knows how to listen (very important in chamber music not only for entrances and balance), they know how to anticipate what Stuart as a conductor might now do as a soloist, and they know he has the confidence in them to leave them on their own when his hands are otherwise involved.

First of all, it's a piece he says he'd grown up playing, “one of my two or three favorites. It’s been in my head a long time.”

So what is this “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466”? It doesn't have a nickname which is surprising, considering its dramatic nature, so this number, this key and this odd “K.466” thing all sounds very intimidating.

The K. numbers in Mozart are a way of identifying individual pieces in the catalog of his complete works put together by a fellow named Köchel. While there could be a number of concertos in the key of D Minor – there aren't, in this case – the #466 narrows it down to one specific work. In fact, musicians often break these titles down into bits of code – “oh yes, we're playing 466 this weekend!”

What is the importance of the “key,” the pitches around which a piece is composed? We often make the overly simplistic distinction that a major key sounds “happy” and a minor key sounds “sad,” though a lot more would go into recreating that sense in a listener's response to it.

D Minor was a key that had a very specific “sound” for Mozart and he associated it with a specific emotion, one very dramatic and often very dark, even demonic (the fact I'm using all these “d”-words is not a coincidence). Just listening to the opening of this concerto, if you could do so with Viennese ears atuned to the mid-1780s, you would also probably find it disconcerting and... what's a word for “off-putting” that begins with d...?

The Viennese liked their music to entertain them. For one thing, they didn't expect to be required to think while listening to music. And they certainly preferred their music with “happy endings.” That's why most of the music being written at this time was written in major keys. Minor keys were just too sad and serious and, after all, who wants to deal with that when you're out to be entertained?

Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos – only two are in minor keys: this one and No. 24 in C Minor. Neither were very popular with Viennese audiences at the time.

Mozart also composed over 41 symphonies, though most of them are not the “major works” we usually expect a symphony to be. But of those symphonies, only two are in minor keys – and they're both in G Minor, which was another key that had emotional implications for Mozart. This was his “tragic” key – and I doubt if someone transposed Pamina's heart-rending aria “Ah, ich fühl's” to F Minor it would have the same emotional impact (at least to Mozart).

The first movement of this concerto is definitely sinister, uncertain – these odd syncopations, the ominous rumblings in the bass (remember also the opening of Beethoven's “Funeral March” in his Eroica Symphony) and the deep register all create a mood.

Curiously it's a mood he would recreate in his opera Don Giovanni two years later where the key of D Minor is associated with the supernatural Statue of the late Commendatore who comes back from beyond the grave to claim his murderer's soul – how spooky is that?!

The 2nd Movement is decidedly a contrast but even in the middle of this lyrical diversion is a dramatically contrasting middle section – in the key of G Minor.

The 3rd Movement begins with a dramatic upward gesture – a cliché of the era known as a “Manheim Rocket” – that sets off an uncertain and troubled-sounding finale. Yet within this group of ideas we hear something comparably child-like and decidedly “happy.” It will eventually be this idea the concerto concludes with, ultimately a happy ending, almost as if Mozart were winking at the audience, sitting through all this drama, to say “see? It's only make-believe, after all.”

In this performance, Daniel Harding conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with pianist Lars Vogt:

(The 2nd Movement begins at 14:10; the 3rd, at 23:10.)
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It's not surprising that, in the 19th Century with its blood-and-guts emotional response to music – called “Romanticism” for lack of a less vague word – both this D Minor Concerto and Don Giovanni were two works that kept Mozart's reputation alive.

And then there's the Requiem – a work left incomplete at his death at the age of 35 – which you would expect to be “sad” but which is also in D Minor. Coincidence?

Curiously there have been associations suggested by arm-chair psychologists in the past century that each of these works have some association with his father, the easily abused Leopold Mozart.

But I'll get more into that at my pre-concert talk, an hour before each performance. (Have to leave something to talk about...)

Suffice it to say, Mozart's D Minor Concerto was a favorite of Beethoven's when he was a promising young piano virtuoso in Vienna in the decade after Mozart's death. He was just one of several pianists who left cadenzas for it in their works – others being Mozart's student Hummel (once one of the great pianists of his day and an equally acclaimed composer now forgotten) as well as Brahms and Clara Schumann, all of whom played this concerto frequently.

In this weekend's performance, Stuart Malina has chosen Beethoven's cadenza in the first movement and Hummel's for the finale.

So, what's a cadenza and why isn't it by Mozart?

Technically, the term comes from the “cadence” that is left incomplete near the end of (usually) the first movement of a concerto. “Cadence” is a harmonic progression of chords leading to the fulfillment of the tension it creates, establishing the home or “tonic” key (the root of classical tonality).

Usually, the orchestra “builds up” to the next-to-the-last chord which leaves the listener hanging – what will this chord resolve to? It is up to the soloist, then, to extend this anticipation further by improvising an extended passage based on the composer's themes. Each performer would thus create something virtuosic that would be different and, presumably, fresh at each performance. The object then was to end triumphantly on the tonic chord, bringing in the orchestra for concluding passage, wrapping everything up in a nice, neat package.

Now, Mozart wrote out cadenzas for some of his concertos, but not this one. Other performers, as I mentioned, wrote out theirs for posterity (or at least for their less adventuresome colleagues). Keep in mind Mozart was an acclaimed improviser and that was really what set Beethoven apart in his first years in Vienna – his skills at improvising virtuosic variation after variation on someone else's theme.

Today, when improvisation is a skill no longer expected in our soloists, it's traditional to play someone else's cadenzas. But that was not the original intent and well into the 19th Century it was a mark of the soloist's creative virtuosity to be able to make something like that up on the spot. These days, few performers are also composers. Enough said...

Oh, and another thing to mention. This was one of four concerts Mozart completed early in 1785 for a series of concerts during the Lenten season (most such public concerts were offered only during Lent and Advent). It was completed on February 11th and premiered two days later. In fact, Mozart's father wrote home that Mozart was so busy supervising the last-minute copying, he had no time to run through the last movement before the only rehearsal. Talk about “under the wire”...

- Dick Strawser

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