Tao Plays Mozart
PROGRAM NOTES FOR TAO PLAYS MOZART (March 16-18, 2023)
Wojciech Kilar: Orawa
Orchestras and concertgoers in California share a special affinity for composers who bridge the classical and movie worlds. But Wojciech Kilar, though he won high honors in both genres, is atypical of this group. Born later than composers who fled Europe for Hollywood before World War II, Kilar was seven years old when Germany invaded his native Poland. He remained a citizen of Poland until his death at the age of 81, settling in the city of Katowice with his wife, a concert pianist.
Kilar’s musical training in Poland and Paris with Nadia Boulanger placed him in the forefront of 20th-Century Polish composers. His film work encompassed not only movies by major Polish directors, but also Hollywood features by Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jane Campion. Steven Spielberg chose Kilar’s epic Exodus for the trailer of Schindler’s List. But Kilar’s later works are far simpler and more intimately scaled; his career can be viewed as a journey from complex, spiky atonality to simplicity.
Kilar composed Orawa when he was in his early fifties (premiere 1986). The title refers to a ruggedly mountainous region near the Polish-Slovak border, and is the final work in a series of compositions for string orchestra that beg comparison to the Czechoslovak composer Bedrich Smetana’s Má vlast (“My Homeland”); as with Smetana’s The Moldau, Orawa is by far the most popular movement in a larger, geographically descriptive suite. Audiences have enjoyed arrangements of Orawa for accordion trio, twelve saxophones, eight cellos, and string quartet. While the music references a craggy, picturesque landscape, as in Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony, the style, with its driving rhythmic patterns and brusque harmonies, could not be more different.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491
Mozart, with his seemingly effortless mastery of form and endless flow of melodic inspiration, brought the Classical concerto to previously unimagined heights. Beethoven’s five piano concertos, especially the fourth and fifth, used Classical conventions as a take-off point for something grander in scale and more challenging in spirit. It does not minimize the sublimity of Mozart’s concertos to say they are ingratiating and tuneful; nor does it minimize the beauty of Beethoven’s concertos to point out that the Romantic struggle we hear in the development of his melodies transcends the melodies themselves.
If there is one point of overlap between these two giants of the concerto form, it is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. If his other concertos were composed to flatter the ear and gladden the heart of the listener, this one is different: darker, more challenging, more experimental. This is the Mozart concerto that Beethoven’s most partisan admirers concede is a work of greatness. Hearing it, Beethoven famously lamented to his friend and publisher John Cramer, “Oh my dear Cramer, we shall never get any idea like this!” Beethoven’s own great piano concertos were still two decades in the offing./
Mozart composed this concerto in 1786, toward the end of a span of two and one-half years when he wrote a dozen piano concertos, including many of his greatest. It was one of three he wrote in that year, when he was also hard at work on The Marriage of Figaro—a fact that may contribute to the operatic, singing quality in some of the concertos. According to musicologist John N. Burke, “If Mozart could be said ever to have ignored his public in a concerto and followed completely his own inner promptings, it was here.” Burke calls the work Mozart’s “ultimate venture, his furthest exploration of the piano concerto…” He characterizes Mozart’s three later concertos as “a further refinement of what he had done.”
When we listen to this concerto, its dramatic intensity is inarguable from the start. Its orchestra is the largest Mozart specified in any of his concertos, and it is symphonic in scope, challenging us with a beautiful but somber musical landscape that the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein calls “an explosion of the dark, tragic, passionate emotions.” Remarkably, its fierce opening theme includes all 12 notes of the chromatic scale as it unfolds. The second movement, a larghetto in the key of E-flat, offers a serene contrast. The concluding allegretto is in theme-and-variations form; as is so often the case with Mozart, musicologists and critics are at pains to describe its beauty as simultaneously simple and profound. “Of the variations,” writes Donald Tovey, “Some…are pathetic, some childlike…and some majestic… But, as with Greek art, the subtle sublimity is a function of the simplicity and clearness of the surface; until at last the whole pathos of Mozart’s work is summed up in the last variation, in 6/8 time.”
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Scottish
How can a symphony describe a place? Some musicologists and composers—among them the imperiously judgmental Igor Stravinsky—write that music is unalterably abstract, that it cannot suggest anything visual…that it can mean nothing but itself. On the other hand, we are also told that certain composers excel at musical depictions of places and even of people. Thus, the American composers Virgil Thomson and Charles Ives gave us, respectively, orchestral portraits of Thomson’s friends and Ives’s musical postcards from Three Places in New England, as well as fond musical souvenirs of Ives’s native Danbury, Connecticut. Among compositions like these, Felix Mendelssohn’s Scottish and Italian symphonies stand out and are frequently cited as among the greatest and most vividly picturable of all descriptive classical compositions. Are these claims valid? It’s up to us listeners to judge for ourselves.
Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, eighteen years after the death of Mozart. Like Mozart’s, Mendelssohn’s genius was evident from earliest childhood. Both had musically talented sisters and parents who were ambitious for their success. But as the scion of a wealthy Jewish family and the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the young Felix was not viewed as someone whose talents were to be exploited for financial gain, as Leopold Mozart sought to do with Amadeus.
Instead, Felix’s father Abraham moved his family to Berlin and made their residence there a salon that attracted the most prominent intellectuals of the day. Music and stimulating conversation were constants. Though Abraham and his wife Lea renounced Judaism and were themselves baptized along with their four children as Reformed Christians, the Mendelssohn name and heritage were well known in Europe, and the family never sought to conceal their ethnicity in cultivating their place in European cultural life.
Some of Mendelssohn’s most brilliant musical inspirations came from his travels, as we can readily hear in the landscapes evoked in his compositions, and in their nicknames—the Italian Symphony, the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony, to name three. When touring, Mendelssohn used staff paper like a sketchbook, recording his visual impressions in musical notation; by his own account, he conceived the Scottish Symphony after his first visit to Great Britain in 1829. Following a successful series of performances in London, he embarked on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann and was particularly moved by the picturesque, evocative ruins of the chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. In a letter describing this experience, he included a sketch of the symphony’s opening theme.
Despite the deep impression that this visit made and a quick start on the opening movement, Mendelssohn struggled with the symphony’s development. After a series of initial sketches, he laid the work aside in 1831. This interruption, apparently, was just what was needed; after resuming work in 1841, he was able to complete the symphony in the first weeks of the year 1841—the fifth and final symphony he composed, though the third to be published. The premiere was played in March, 1841 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus.
To most listeners Mendelssohn’s “travel music” including the Scottish Sympony. really does suggest the landscapes and cultures that inspired it. The symphony’s first movement is grand and joyful, with a briskness and energy that seem true to Scotland. This effect is even more marked in the lively second movement, which evokes the tunes and rhythms of Scottish folk music without directly quoting from Scottish sources. The contemplative third movement gives way to an energetic finale that draws from the rhythms of Scottish folk dances. In an elevated, German-style coda, Mendelssohn seems to conclude the symphony with a Scottish-German alliance of his own invention.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor‑in‑chief for The Santa Fe Opera.