Mozart 34- re-lighting an old flame

I had a nice moment in rehearsal tonight.

I first met Mozart 34 in a pretty good chamber orchestra with a pretty bad conductor. It wasn’t an auspicious first date, but in spite of the noisy circumstances, we had chemistry. It probably helped that my stand partner for the concert was an agreeable if rather intense German baroque specialist- we played the whole concert without endpins.

I a sucker for over-looked gems, and so 34 became one of my pets- not as highfalutin as 41, but maybe fresher and more fun, in a slightly low-key summer-festival-fling way. I thought about her long after that first meeting- when people would start talking about the important Mozart symphonies, a list that seems to being with either 35, 36 or 38 for 99% of the world, I would always interrupt to sing her praises.

We kept in touch for a while, but didn’t see each other again in concert for a long time. When we finally met up, something terrible happened- the old chemistry just wasn’t there. At the time, I chalked it up to the leaden, strident and graceless orchestra playing (editors note- we generally remove concert archive listings on my website of orchestras I’m going to slag off here, even anonymously, so no point trying to guess which band it was). I tried hard to show 34 a good time, but my heart wasn’t in it by the end. What had once seemed like fresh-faced exuberance, now struck me as formulaic chest thumping. I never did like Mozart’s C Major trumpets-and-drums style all that much. I love the Jupiter in spite of that stuff, but 34 lacks 41’s contrapuntal wizardry.

I kept trying to tell myself that it wasn’t that 34 wasn’t the wrong piece for me, but that we’d gone on the wrong date, but I kept looking at the score and thinking it looked too thick, plodding and ceremonial throughout the 1st mvt.  Sure the Finale was fun, but wasn’t a little empty, too? The last time I did it, conducting the Finale of 34 felt like dragging a burlap sack of overweight hornets uphill through a swamp.

I probably wouldn’t have asked her out again, but for my lack of scruples. I got in trouble last year with someone at the Surrey Mozart Players for not programming enough Mozart (note to self- remember the name of the band!). My retort was to try to  programme all the nearly-great  Mozart symphonies, from 31-38, charting his evolution to the full maturity of the Prague Symphony, but avoiding  the juvenilia and the well-travelled territories of the great final triptych. In the end, a combination of venue issues and committee discussions (committees are, for all their good intentions, where good ideas go to die), we were left with only 3 of the 7 originally planned works, but 34 had slipped through.

Studying went well- yes, the entire 1st mvt is built on formulas (fanfares, stock virtuoso licks and so on), but it looks fresh on the page. The recap is a miracle. But, when I tried to envision conducting it, I could feel that familiar sense of being held in a headlock while being used as someone else’s punching bag I remembered from the last performance I conducted (hard to believe, but Mozart can sound so brutal and bombastic when things go wrong). I listened to the one recording I have floating around the house (admittedly, not a good one) and it only heightened my sense of dread. It sounded over orchestrated (always a danger with modern instruments) four-square and a little Stamitz-ee. There’s nothing like 10 years of studying Haydn to highlight every weak spot in every Mozart symphony.

Tonight we met up at last, at the tail end of long and intense rehearsal. At first, I wasn’t in the mood, but then something strange happened. I started having creative responses to the music. Instead of responding only to all the things in the playing that were making me grind my teeth, I found myself talking about opera, gesture and language- I’ve decided 34 is Italian, which makes sense as Eroica (2nd half of the same program) is LvB’s Italian symphony. At one point I may have even been smiling– by the end of the night, 34 and I seemed to have rediscovered that old chemistry at last.

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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 34- re-lighting an old flame”

  1. Patrick

    I’m relieved that in the end you got back in love with Mozart 34. It’s one of my favourites, too ( of WAM’s neglected and unplayed symphonies), but what about all the others that don’t get an airing; 33 soars and has those quirky rhythmic twists in the slow movement and even 28 and 30 are worth taking out and freshening up – Isn’t it surprising (and a shame) that Harnoncourt didn’t record these and subsequent symphonies with his period band?

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