The Final Program- Why Mozart 31?

Mozart’s Paris Symphony was the first  work I conducted with the Oregon East Symphony. Here is a somewhat pained description of the difficulties of rehearsing what I had thought was a relatively straightforward classical work-

“I was exceedingly anxious at rehearsal, for never in my life have I heard a worse performance. You can have no conception of how they bungled and scrambled through it the first time and the second. Really I was quite frightened and would have liked to rehearse it once more, but there was so much else to rehearse that there was no time left. Accordingly I went to bed with fear in my heart, discontent and anger in my mind. I had decided not to go to the concert at all the next day; but it was a fine evening, and I finally resolved to go with the proviso that if things went as ill as at the rehearsal I would certainly make my way into the orchestra, snatch Herr Lahouse’s instrument from his hand and play myself!”

Reading that vivid and honest account does take me back to that first evening rehearsing in the dark and dingy Little Theater, in the basement beneath the Vert Auditorium, but those are not my words, they’re Mozart’s, describing rehearsals for the premiere.

In my naiveté, I probably hadn’t realized what a challenging piece the “Paris” is, but I quickly found out. I also realized that there were things that I had simply taken for granted with orchestras that I would have to learn how to teach and explain if I wanted to achieve a decent performance. The orchestra back then didn’t have nearly the talent pool it now does, and even many of the regular string principals back then weren’t available for that performance. It sounds funny to say this about a group that has since played four Mahler symphonies quite well, but the night before the concert I was far from sure we’d get through the concert without a disaster.

However, as they would time after time, the orchestra rose to the occasion on the day, and not only made it through, but gave a proper performance. Still, I’ll always remember those rehearsals as some of the most daunting I’ve ever been part of, and a time where I really had to start at the beginning of the beginning in order to even be able to get through the beginning of a piece.

By coming back to this symphony, I hope we can all find some measure of how far we’ve come. For me, I can see how much my understanding of Mozart has evolved. What an astounding piece this is- maybe it was the pressure of trying to win over a foreign audience, but Mozart pulls out all the stops in this piece in an incredible way. It is second only to the Jupiter for the sheer audacity of it’s contrapuntal writing in all his symphonies. Amazing stuff.

I’m doing one thing completely differently from past performances this week. I’ve seen the same famous letter from Mozart to his father quoted in almost every program note about the piece I’ve ever seen (the same letter I quoted from above). His description of the Finale is interesting-

“The andante [the second movement] also found favor, but particularly the last allegro [the final movement] because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano [softly] for eight bars only, then forte [loudly], so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said “Sh!” and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands.

Interesting because, I’ve never seen a performance with just two violins playing at the beginning. It’s always done with the two violin sections. I decided to throw caution to the wind and do it as Mozart described it with just solo players. Will the audience burst into applause on Saturday at that moment? Why not.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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