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Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Month of Mozart

Mozart was marketed heavily in the 250th anniversary of his birth. The Mozart Project was launched - a huge meta-website with so much traffic in its first few days that it crashed their servers. Opera and symphony seasons were planned around Mozart. Radio stations ran "your favourite Mozart piece" contests. In my group of friends we chose his Requiem as our favourite. (Actually, I collect requia, because I love sad music. Mozart's is one my favourites among these, too.)

Now, Mozart's birthday was January 27th, 1756.  He just passed 255. There seems to be an upwelling around him again. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra spent a week or so honouring Mozart. One of their guests was the brilliant and adorable violinist James Ehnes. (I have added a link to his home page.)

I heard from Julie Nesrallah, who does the morning classical show on CBC Radio 2, (I have added a link to her Twitter feed), that Ehnes and Mozart HAVE THE SAME BIRTHDAY! Meaningful? I kind of hope so.  I got to see the concert because my friend K, the violinist, got us tickets. It was an amazing performance.

A door has opened for me with this friend. I have been doing pretty well on opera. I have always been a piano aficionado. The violin - I know nothing. In listening to the two Mozart concerti played together by same violinist, we recognized what I looked up to be the "cadenza" a part in a concerto where the soloist may improvise. The way Ehnes played the two cadenzas sounded similar and quite modern, with discord and superfast fingering. (Ehnes also famously plays Paganini - one of the first guys reputed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical ability.) On the other hand, when I started to look into it a bit, it seems that Mozart, who wrote all his violin concerti in the early part of his career, when he emphasized the violin rather than the keyboard as his own performance instrument, is one of the first composers to have written out the cadenza parts, rather than leaving them to the violinist. Hmmm, A mystery that needs more work. Maybe I should send an email and ask Ehnes himself? And maybe I should check with the also-adorable Tom Allen, the host of the afternoon classical program on CBC Radio 2. He knows everything. I'll do that later. (I have also added a link to his Twitter feed.) Oh! And I'll ask some music teachers.

There is another mystery here, too. I love the sound of a baroque orchestra. I have always mentally located the different sound of the instruments in the strings, and some of it is the gut stringing.

But, as Wikipedia says: A baroque violin is, in common usage, any violin whose neck, fingerboard, bridge, and tailpiece are of the type used during the baroque period. Such an instrument may be an original built during the baroque and never changed to modern form; or a modern replica built as a baroque violin; or an older instrument which has been converted (or re-converted) to baroque form [my emphasis - modernized and then unmodernized]. And there is also this, from the History of the Violin on Wikipedia: the fingerboard was made a little longer to be able to play even the highest notes; the fingerboard was tilted a little more, to produce even more volume as larger and larger orchestras became popular: nearly all old instruments were modified, including lengthening of the neck by one centimeter, in response to the raising of pitch that occurred in the 19th century. (In the photo the modern is on the right - you can see it is longer, with a longer throat.)

However, my friend also instructed me that the playing technique favoured now also varies from the technique favoured during the baroque. For one thing, more bow pressure also produces louder sounds - and the corollary is that part of the popularity of baroque music is that it still falls within humanist dimensions - smaller number of instruments, less dynamic range, less pitch or tonal range. There is a great chart that shows the human voice as the standard range against which all other instruments are compared that shows this beautifully. You can see the baroque instruments lined up under the top line in the middle, which is the human voice.

Modern technology pushes all of these out past the limit of the human body to produce or even appreciate. There have also been changes in bowing technique - in particular the addition of vibrato. I learned this between the two concerti, and I realized in watching the second one that in every longer note, all the violins and violas (and possibly the other strings too, but I couldn't see them as clearly) used vibrato. Here Wikipedia says: Vibrato is a technique of the left hand and arm in which the pitch of a note varies in a pulsating rhythm. While various parts of the hand or arm may be involved in the motion, the end result is a movement of the fingertip bringing about a slight change in vibrating string length. Some violinists oscillate backwards, or lower in pitch from the actual note when using vibrato, since it is believed that perception favors the highest pitch in a varying sound.  I have not yet figured out the when where why and who of vibrato. I'm going to have to dig deeper to understand it.

What I really don't get is that here is Ehnes, who uses a Stradivarius violin from 1715, playing baroque music written between 1770 and 1780, in the modern way - ie with a baroque instrument converted to the modern style and favouring (I imagine, among other modern techniques) vibrato. (Just to be sure it's clear: Mozart is considered to be a composer who came out of the baroque and pushed music into the "classical" period. By comparison, Beethoven came out of the "classical" period and pushed music into the romantic. Beethoven actually studied for a while with Mozart. )

How did it get to be that the received way to play this music on this instrument is with modern updates in technology and technique? How did these qualities acquire their value to the extent that they pushed out the original intentions of the creator? This will come up again in a couple of paragraphs, if you can stand it.

 Now, on with Mozart. I always go on and on about kids and opera, and I was really interested when I saw that the Canadian Opera Company was offering a family performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute this month. It is performed by the ensemble instead of the company, the seats are super-cheap, and the entire audience will be filled with rustling and wriggling kids. What a great way to let them start to see opera! I have often thought of trying this opera with my kids, but as a regular performance it seemed a bit challenging.

Once again, I give props (insert hand gesture here) to the Classical Kids CD series (of Beethoven Lives Upstairs fame). They give Mozart two different stories on CD, and one is Mozart's Magic Fantasy, focusing on the music and story of the magic flute. It is completely delightful, and a perfect intro. In fact thanks to Mozart's Magic Fantasy, the first time I ever checked out YouTube was on a rainy Sunday, stuck at home. I sat with my kids and we looked up different performances of the Queen of the Night, from The Magic Flute, and compared them. From there we went on to the Commendatore scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Fantastic or what?

Staying with the idea of Mozart, the first baroque opera I ever saw was a performance of Don Giovanni by Opera Atelier - Toronto's specialist baroque opera company. They took pains to inform the audience that they would perform it baroque style, not romantic. Cool! Faster and lighter in every way. I fell in love with Opera Atelier then and there. It is a theory of mine that we are still using the "romantic" paradigm for the arts, and I guess that I am saying that very thing about the Ehnes performance - the orchestration was romantic, because that sounds "right" to modern listeners, even thought the music was created for something different. finalize this month of Mozart, I was able to get tickets for Opera Atelier's upcoming performance of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. No kids for this one. I know nothing about it. Must look up story.  Must look up music.

I have seen Measha Brueggergosman and Michael Maniaci together in OA's Idomeneo a couple of years ago. He is about the world's only male soprano (a true voice) and I can't wait to see them again. (You can find a post about it under my tag "opera".)

PS What better way to spend a snow day than listening to, thinking about and writing to my friends about music!

Now the marigold is wondering nervously: Have I written too much? Should I have also included what I learned about Rondo form? Should I have included the link to Vladimir Ahskenazy playing Mozart's darkish Rondo in A Minor? What about Rondo alla Turca? What about the general Turkish/Masonic connections of Mozart that show in all kinds of Mozart music, including The Magic Flute? Should I do a separate post on that? What do you think?

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