The funny thing about me dedicating 2 years to learn and perform all of Mozart's Piano Sonatas is that I used to HATE Mozart.
I had avoided playing him until my final year of High School. That year, my teacher had me work on several things to fill in some gaps: J.S. Bach (shamefully, I avoided him till that year too), Haydn and yes, Mozart. She had me work on two Sonatas, F major K 280 and G major K 283. I hated them, especially G major.
I was all about Beethoven and Brahms at that point in time. I liked bigger, meatier sounds. I liked the passion. Mozart was lean and gangly, light and frothy.
I remember working on that G major Sonata and declaring to my parents that he was the worst composer ever. It didn't hold together, there was no continuity. Thinking about the finale of that Sonata, I can understand why. Thinking back to what I wrote about Mozart and opera just a few days ago: Mozart writes differently for different characters. And, Mozart Sonatas are mini-operas. If those two things are true, then Mozart's piano Sonatas will feature many shifts of idea, texture and technique. It will seem discontinuous, but that's because the focus is shifting from one character to the next. I was expecting one continuous character, but what Mozart was giving me was a scene full of interactivity.
As for the passion...I just wasn't a mature enough listener, analyst or technician at the piano to hear, see, or perform the passion that was there. Mozart's music is passionate, but it's passion that requires nuance of dynamics, and shadings of rubato. With Beethoven, his approach to piano technique and texture practically writes the passion onto the page. In Mozart you have to search for it. That doesn't mean that Mozart should be subtle in sound, but that little of his passion is obvious just reading the notes.
Overtime, I came to appreciate Mozart one way or another. I worked on K 331, 332 and 333 at one time or another, as well as the Concerto K 467. As I became more aware of classical performance practice, the possibilities of Mozart's music became more and more real. As I studied opera, I understood how to connect that dramatic music to the piano. Eventually I developed a certain sound and approach to Mozart's piano music that I could get very excited about.
Thus, sometime in the spring of 2018, the idea of diving deep into a composer came to me. My first thought was actually Bach, but then the alliterative "Mozart in a Month" came to mind and I never looked back. I'm so excited to discover all of this music bit by bit, and to develop my sound, and revisit this composer again and again, always coming back to him with new ideas, better ears and more refined technique. I'm excited to listen to other works, watch operas, and read books that will illuminate style. I also want to explore the idea that Mozart is an essential element of human love and flourishing. I'll visit the 'idea of Mozart' every month, talking about what I've learned from him and hope to get from him as this project moves on.
I wanted to say a few words about the recent Richard Dare article that has popped up…It’s gotten some criticism but I’m a big fan. I don’t agree with everything, however. I don’t think we can justify people milling about the concert hall, or singing along, talking…that is, if we are to only present a typical classical concert environment.
I think audiences should atleast occasionally have the chance to hear music in the environment it was conceived for—that is, chamber music is chamber music. A string quartet I admire on many levels, who I’ve had the pleasure of being coached by (the Chiara Quartet) has done tours of “Beethoven in Bars”. Why not? Let people take what they want out of it and leave the rest. Chances are it’s the people who are relaxed, and caught by surprise, not expecting to experience this music this night, who will be the most intrigued. Even “concert music” was performed in a social setting, and I’ve written about this tangentially in a past blog.
At the same time, though, a lot of contemporary music was conceived for a quiet concert hall, and should be performed as such. You won’t get much out of Wuorinen by listening to him casually. This stuff needs to be the center of attention.
I’ve said for a while now, and I will continue to say, anyone is welcome to clap anywhere and at any time during one of my solo performances. It might distract me—oh well, I’ll deal with it and it will add to the humanness of my playing. Perhaps a little discomfort on stage is what we need to relax and make enthralling music.
More than anything, I want to be able to react to a performance that I’m watching how I like to react to a performance that I’m giving. I used to be motionless when I played, and my playing was quite emotionless. I was self-consciousness embodied in sound. As I started to come out of my shell, I just let myself move, shuffle my feet, sway, sing, react facially to what I was trying to convey…And not only was my playing transformed but my enjoyment of music, my insight and my critical listening skills all grew immensely.
Thus I hope to experience music as a listener, the same way I experience it as a performer. I think non-classical musicians would feel the way I do about music if they were allowed to experience it how they tend to experience and enjoy their choice music. Perhaps Dare’s larger point is this: who is prescribing how classical music is ‘supposed’ to be experienced? It’s certainly not the classical composers, not performers from ages past. Why not relax arbitrary rules?…None of the critical comments I read address Dare’s points that the classical music environment is a wholly unwelcoming one. Why wouldn’t we want to change that, if at least to offer a continuum of concert experiences from the casual and social to the serious and formal.
My favorite performing experience of my career was this past fall when I played at the Clazel Theater in Bowling Green as part of the New Music Festival in town…I played, walked off stage to the bar and ordered a drink, then I mingled, took in the rest of the performers. People got a lot of my piece, I got a lot out of others, and I enjoyed myself socially…I’ve also performed this year in sock feet, I’ve kneeled on the stage to play toy piano, and I wore a plain blue t-shirt for my own solo recital. If you weren’t watching video, you’d never know. But I prepared just as seriously for those performances as the ones when I wore a tux. I can assure you that each time I was enjoying myself on that stage more than if I was performing under “traditional” concert situations; surely that showed in the quality of my playing.
I thought serialism was something that just wasn’t for me. Never heard a performance of a piece that particularly moved me. For every time I enjoyed the grating emotional overflow from Schoenberg (certainly his atonal works, even the serial works I can get through) or every time I felt a logical sense of relation and progression in a work by George Perle, I would also hear the maddening confusion from Milton Babbitt or Pierre Boulez. Serialism—it was dry, illogical, confusing, unaesthetic—would never be my thing. I got to a happy place having decided there was nothing wrong with serialism if people wanted to do it, I won’t say it’s ‘bad’ music, but I had no intentions of enjoying it.
Then I came to Bowling Green. And seeing as how I am in a program dedicated to the performance of contemporary music I felt obligated to give it a shot. Then an opportunity came—a saxophonist asked me to play a Wuorinen piece with him so I decided to suck it up and do it. I put off working on it until a couple days before our first rehearsal. Lo and behold, yes it’s difficult, yes the rhythms are nasty, the chords and pitches appear all over the place…but I could play it. I wrote out nearly every beat (often every subdivision) of nearly every bar, I tapped my foot incessantly, I counted out loud, I wrote in accidentals, note-names, fingerings and drew colored lines; whatever it took to cue my brain of what to play next. Come the first rehearsal, of course there were struggles, we did not lock in right away, yet it started to click much sooner than either of us thought it would. The second rehearsal was the same and I got more excited each time we broke down a passage and nailed it.
Once I got past the initial mental bewilderment, this music was exciting—it makes sense, it’s not so illogical, it was tickling something in my brain, in a similar but not quite equal way that “tonal” music did. I started to see the color in it, the subtle hues of sound and more than anything the brilliance of how motives weaved in and out of the texture throughout the piece. I guess I don’t mind serialism afterall.
I said this to my saxophonist and he said that indeed, he has found he enjoys playing it more than listening to it. I think this is very interesting—perhaps the intellectual element that draws some composers to it—can only be experienced if one is involved, otherwise it sounds only like an intellectual exercise. It made me think about the history of classical music, particularly chamber music. I would even include most piano music, up to but not excluding some of Chopin and Schumann, as chamber music—in the sense that it was not written to be concert music but written for a few people to enjoy playing together. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and other works certainly pushed its way in to the concert sphere, but they were still written as chamber pieces to be played at home, they were not written to be concert pieces to be played by concert artists. I have long found Mozart and Haydn’s chamber music unendurable and boring. Both could write brilliantly in other genres but I never felt they brought their most appealing music ideals to their intimate works. I’d rather not hear a recording or see a recital of Mozart sonatas, but I could play through them all day.
Maybe there is more connection between early chamber music and serialism than what one hears on the surface. Haydn’s string quartets are surely important works but maybe not so important to be heard, just important to be played. I will never know because I have no intention of being able to learn a string instrument well enough to rehearse a Haydn quartet, but I imagine that I might enjoy doing so more than I enjoy listening to one. Perhaps that same tickle I started to feel actually playing through the Wuorinen piece is the same thing that attracts so many to this classical chamber music which I find so dull.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act