Mozart 41 and gateway works

As I catch up with events of recent weeks, I just wanted to also follow up on the Mozart 41 performance with Surrey Mozart Players from last week.

I’d be remiss not to say something about the concert, as it was a memorable evening and I know well that quite a few members of the orchestra read Vftp regularly and I’ve been a bit lax in writing often enough about our collaboration.

I can imagine the odd sneer of some readers that I’m following a post on Messiah with one on Mozart 41. “How dull,” they might well moan, “those pieces are such over-worn affairs. Doesn’t Woods ever want to talk about fresher bits of repertoire?”

Well, the beauty of a blog versus a column in a  paper is that one isn’t working with limited column inches- I’m not forced to choose between writing about this or that. Over time, I can write about this then that.

In fact, I feel strongly that it’s so important not to take our warhorses for granted. Call them mainstays, top-ten hits, but I like to call them gateway pieces. The fact is there are those few pieces whose appeal beyond the everyday offers a gateway to turn the passive classical nibbler who might hear a concert a year into a bona fide fan.

Beyond that, for perhaps millions of listeners, Messiah might be the only major baroque work they ever hear in public. We want them to come away from the piece having had a chance to hear the best of music and the best of musical performance– if they still don’t like classical music enough to stay with the program, that’s a matter of their taste, not our failings.

I don’t need to remind readers how often a piece like Nutcracker gets done on too little rehearsal by a conductor not quite-up-to-the-job and probably with an orchestra reduced beyond reason. Rather than treating these pieces like cash cows, we ought to treat them like a new car showroom- making them as sparkly and attractive as possible. (Insert joke about then selling them the 1981 K Car here)….

But back to Mozart 41- If you haven’t already read them, here are some of the questions on my mind as I was preparing the piece. In the end, I felt that my musical take on the piece was very little changed from last time I did it, although I think the interpretation was even more detailed and nuanced, and the rehearsals a bit more specific. Sometimes further study brings a complete change of concept, other times it reveals your existing concept at higher resolution- this was certainly the latter.  It was our first big Mozart work together, and it took a while for us to find a shared concept. In fact, it wasn’t until the Friday evening rehearsal that some little comment I made about the strings leaning into the string in a certain way seemed to take- suddenly we seemed to be hearing the sound palette of the piece in the same way, and everything opened up.

Conducting a very contrapuntal piece like Jupiter from memory can be a risky and unforgiving business, and I never go out without the score unless I feel it will free me to do something I couldn’t do with the score there, and if I feel there is no extra risk for the musicians. I can’t speak to the experience of the audience or the players, but for myself, it was a great feeling doing this piece again with so many more years’ experience under my belt. Experience used to be the measure of a conductor (talent was assumed), but not so much any more. Talent is a lovely thing, and something quite a few of us have to some extent or another, but it is humbling to know that you do come to a deeper place of understanding with great works over time, no matter how talented you may be. To his credit, I once read a quote from Paavo Jarvi saying “there is no such thing as a great, young conductor.”

I came offstage grateful for a wonderful, centered and coherent performance from the orchestra, and also with a funny optimism. If Jupiter is this much more fun to conduct now than five years ago, how fun will it be when I’m sixty or eighty? No wonder that Haitink guy does such good concerts…..

Merry Christmas, SMP!

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Mozart 41 and gateway works”

  1. Pingback: Jason Heath’s Double Bass Blog » links for 2007-12-19

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