Last of the Redneck Mozart

On the one hand, it may seem like we had a little mini-onslaught of blog posts last week, after a fairly quiet summer. On the other, I continue to feel like there is a huge backlog of things I want to write about, but that I still am working to recapture a sense of freshness in my writing about them. In the meantime, I fear content here may oscillate between silence and mind-numbing and tired re-treading of the same old Vftp clichés

So with all that to look for, I wanted to just try to talk a tiny bit about my last day at the OES from a musical perspective- Mozart first. 

As I mentioned in previous posts, after my first performance with the OES of Mozart’s Paris Symphony, I put the piece aside for some years, and returned to it last spring with the Surrey Mozart Players. After such a long, and much-needed break, followed by back-to-back performances, a few things are clearer than ever to me.

One, the opening, simple as it is, is quite a conducting challenge. I think the result this is that the musicians in every performance I’ve done of it tend to be late on the second bar of the piece, and late in the middle of the 3rd bar. The obvious conclusion in such a situation is that I’m doing something mildly or completely unhelpful, but it took me until the night of the concert this week to diagnose it- I think the problem is that some or many of the players don’t trust that second bar to come in time in the tempo of the preparatory beat, but are waiting for the down beat of the 2nd bar to start responding. Couple this with a tendency to not differentiate enough between the heavy first bar and the light second, and you’re already bogging down in music that must never bog down. In music like this, the impetus to move has to come from the preparation, not the down beat itself- the down beat is a release, an impulse that should allow the music to unfold effortlessly going forward. From this insight it isn’t immediately clear what to do differently in the 2nd bar, except perhaps to try even harder to get the musicians to hear the opening as a single gesture then stay out of the way.

Getting out of the way is a big problem in the Paris. The obvious attraction in the piece comes from the exuberant way in which the young-ish Mozart is showing everything he can do with the material in a kind of crazy, over the top contrapuntal tour-de-force. It looks great on paper, and sounds cool in my head, but there is always a lot going on. The obvious problem is that, without enough transparency and phrasing, it all starts to sound very noisy and cluttered.

Funnily enough, I found myself getting frustrated with exactly the same stuff in Pendleton that I had in Guildford a few months back- that we weren’t playing with enough contrast, that we weren’t differentiating between heavy and light within dynamics, that we weren’t shaping gestures enough. In some Mozart, the result of complacent playing is nothing worse than a complacent affect (which is already bad enough). In the Paris, which lacks the polish of later contrapuntal Mozart works like the Jupiter, the Magic Flute Overture or the Requiem, the result of complacent playing is simply an unpleasant wall of noise.

What is the solution? More rehearsal time? Maybe that is the ideal, but it’s rarely an option… Marking of the parts? I suppose I could make my Paris Symphony parts look like “a fucking Mahler symphony,” but that is a drastic step. Once you start writing in all the things that should be implicit, anything you don’t mark tends to get completely overlooked. We just worked hard at it.  In the end, I think it was an exciting performance, and I was especially happy with the Andante, which was extremely charming and flirtatious, but it took a lot of work- ten years on, Mozart is still hard.

How interesting to go from the youthful Paris to the mature K488. Some of the challenges are similar- particularly to make the contrasts come to life. In this piece one has to play with such delicacy for so long that it can be hard for some players to snap out of that into a real forte. Yes, let me repeat those three words—“a real forte.”

There’s really nothing more soul destroying than Mozart as elevator music. If you’re playing with light and shade, with a classical sound and with an appropriate sized group, the delicacy is there in the scoring- no need to tiptoe around, wrapping everything in frilly baby blankets.  Of course, it takes intelligence and sensitivity to play forte and Mozart- but without the commitment to really label a forte a forte, the contrasts between big ideas are lost. On the other hand, once you’ve labeled your forte, if you don’t shade and shape dramatically within it, you get the Paris Symphony wall-of-noise effect.

If getting a real forte in Mozart, especially in lyrical, autumnal Mozart is a challenge, it is even more challenging to find intensity in the soft playing. Again, it’s all too easy to let the accompaniment in this concerto turn into saccharine mush. Even in this most delicate moments, or especially in the most delicate moments, there needs to be a clarity of purpose, and an inner fire. There needs to be engagement, direction, and contrast.

Our work was made more challenging in this piece by the sad state of the Vert, which particularly affected us on this piece. Since Mozart uses an unusual wind section (one flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and two horns), the players are already a little out of their comfort zone. The fact that the city of Pendleton couldn’t manage to get our ceiling repaired by show time compounded the challenges in two ways- it made it harder for everyone to hear tuning because the sound was flying into the rafters, and it distorted the balances, meaning that in order for something to sound balanced in the hall, it had to sound unbalanced on stage, which again made the tuning more difficult.

That said, the playing progressed miraculously from session to session and was quite secure in the concert- it’s just a pity they had to stand on their heads fighting the hall in what is already a tough piece.

Jimmy played beautifully, especially in the slow movement.  Maybe it is in these two slow movements that we find the lesson of the whole first half- that Mozart is a composer of huge range. What could be more different than the sexy, whimsical Andante of the Paris and the heart-rending Adagio of K 488?

Perhaps the contrast of the bombastic and exuberant first movement of the Paris and the mysterious and nostalgic first movement of K 488? If you are content to approach them all with this one-size-fits all, nicey nicey sound, his range is lost.

More than just about any composer, Mozart demands an intensified sense of engagement with the material. Unlike Mahler, he doesn’t tell you what to do with the material- we have to engage with it, wrestle with it, invest in it. If you sit back and are content to make nice, inoffensive background music, it’s about as satisfying and meaningful as soggy corn flakes. If you rise to occasion, it takes you places that no other composer can.  It really is the most challenging music ever written. Here we were, on the last day, at the last hour, down to the last minute, still wrestling, still engaging, and hopefully, still investing.

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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

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