Friday, August 17, 2007

Silent and Sounding Instruments

This morning the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra rehearsed Beethoven's First Symphony for next week’s program with the dynamic Finnish conductor, Osmo Vänskä. It was exciting to return to Beethoven, who so dominated the beginning of the festival. Beethoven, more than any other composer, creates a sense of musical narrative through harmony. It’s no wonder that he is unsurpassed as a symphonist. The first movement of his first symphony seems almost wholly a harmonic affair. Melodic motives move throughout the orchestra, rhythmic and timbral elements bolster the movement, but the drama hinges on the harmony. At the end of this morning’s play through, there was such exhilaration as the music drove to its inevitable conclusion. The sense of fulfillment reached at movement’s end is one I only experience in Beethoven. Again, I can’t get away from the metaphor of literature, it is the narrative structure created through harmony that sets Beethoven apart from other composers.

This is the Mostly Mozart Festival, and playing Mozart piano concertos 11 and 27 all week with Emanuel Ax and Louis Langrée has brought distinct pleasures of their own. Mozart’s musical world is much more intimate and interactive than Beethoven’s. There are whole passages in Beethoven where, if an inner voice were to be played alone, it would sound dull, even clunky. This almost never happens in Mozart. Mozartian beauty is one of accretion. Every surface shines, every detail immaculate, the result glows from within. The excellent program annotator for “Mozart Dances,” Kenneth LaFave, notes that in his piano concertos, rather than his symphonies, Mozart made his greatest achievements as an orchestrator. This is especially true in the wind writing, where dialogue and counterpoint make sophisticated interaction with the solo part.

The rehearsal today ended with a treat for the wind section. Next week we’re playing Mozart’s E-flat Serenade, K. 375 for winds, and the conductor puts down his silent instrument, the baton, at takes up a much noisier one, the clarinet. I’ve played with conductors leading from the piano and from the violin, but never from the first clarinet chair. In fact, Osmo is only nominally leading this performance. Graciously, he treated it as chamber music and all voices participated. In fact, I think everyone gave suggestions during the rehearsal. When the alloted rehearsal time came to an end, none of us were ready to stop, the music is such fun. And so was the work. (NB: Zéphyros Winds has a live recording available of this work with Gounod's "Petite Symphonie." Click here to get a copy.)

Try to come Tuesday or Wednesday for the concert. Oh, and Joshua Bell will be playing, too . . .

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