Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Symphony Preview: Nicholas McGegan and the joy of Mozart

Nicholas McGegan
Photo: Randy Beach
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Nicholas McGegan, who is conducting the St. Louis Symphony in an all-Mozart program this weekend (October 7 and 8, 2016), is clearly a man who enjoys his work. When I've seen him conduct the orchestra, he practically bounds out to the podium, his face alight with a cherubic smile. His body language shouts: "this is going to be FUN!" And so it always is.

That couldn't be more appropriate for Mozart, a fellow who certainly knew how to enjoy himself. The portrait of Mozart as a potty-mouthed party animal in Peter Shaffer's popular play Amadeus may be distorted, but it's a distortion based on reality. Even as a child, some of Mozart's letters home were, as Brockway and Weinstock write in Men of Music, "so coarse (to our taste but not to that of the eighteenth century) that their editors have scarcely left one unbowdlerized. Mozart is often in high, and very often in ribald, spirits."

That said, the work that opens this weekend's concerts comes from a time when Mozart's spirits were not so high. The Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K.297 (300a) ("Paris") was written in (yes) Paris in June, 1778. Mozart and his mother had arrived there after a concert tour of Munich, Augsburg, and Mannheim with a view towards finding some job prospects, but the pickings were slim and the composer found himself forced to pawn some of his property to survive. The commission for a new symphony from Jean LeGros, the director of the Concert Spirituel (described by James M. Keller as "the pre-eminent Parisian purveyor of instrumental music until the nation's cultural life was interrupted by the Revolution of 1789") was therefore a welcome development.

Mozart, party animal
"Three and a half years had passed since Mozart had composed his last symphony," Mr. Keller continues, "and he clearly approached this new effort with excitement. At least fifty-five musicians appear to have participated in the premiere. This marks the first time that a pair of clarinets appears in one of the composer's symphonies; in ensuing years, their sound would become central to the orchestral timbre we recognize as Mozartian. What's more, Mozart was a quick enough study to grasp the essence of Parisian musical taste and reflect it in his new score, beginning with the three-movement format (eliminating the minuet movement that was traditional in German-speaking lands)."

The audience at the symphony's June 18 public premiere was enthusiastic, if Mozart's account is accurate. The work was interrupted by applause more several times (the notion that concert audiences should sit quietly is a relatively recent development in musical history) and the composer was ebullient. "I was so happy," he wrote to his father, "that as soon as the symphony was over, I went off to the Palais Royal, where I had a large ice, said the Rosary as I had vowed to do-and went home.”

The only fly in the ointment was Mr. LeGros's attitude towards the Andante second movement: he didn't care for it. "The Andante," relates Tom Service at The Guardian, "exists in two versions, after Legros complained that the first one had too many ideas in it, so Mozart wrote another for when the symphony was repeated on 15 August. No-one's sure which is the first and which the second, but it seems likely the more elaborate movement in 6/8 is the original, and it's this that's usually played." As I'm writing this, I don't know which one Mr. McGegan will be using this weekend; you'll just have to attend to find out.

Up next is the Violin Concerto No. 1, K. 207, written in 1773 when the composer was still a teenager. This and his many other works for violin are reminders that, while we mostly think of Mozart now as a pianist, he was also a pretty respectable fiddler whose first official job is Salzburg was that of concertmaster.

It's not a particularly adventurous piece but, as John Henken writes in program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it certainly has its appeal: "The first movement is a blithe affair, with a touch of courtly, spirited grace. A sublime, operatically poignant Adagio is the centerpiece, the longest movement of the three. Musical athleticism comes to the foreground in the fleet finale, but never overwhelming structural logic or expressive nuance."

The soloist for the concerto will be the remarkable Jennifer Koh, who impressed me so much in the solo part of Vivaldi's Four Seasons in 2011. Back then I called her a veritable dynamo of a performer, shaking her head and tearing into the fast movements with ferocity and singing the slow ones. It will be interesting to see what she does with the Mozart.

Jennifer Koh
The last work on the program dates from 1779, when Mozart found himself back once again in the Salzburg, the city of his birth. He didn't much care for the place, finding the opportunities limited and the population unfriendly. Here he is complaining to his father in a September 1778 letter (cited in Peter Gay's Mozart: A Life): "The only thing-I tell you this straight from the heart-that disgusts me in Salzburg is that one can't have any proper social intercourse with those people-and that music does not have a better reputation-and-that the archbishop does not believe clever people who have traveled" (i.e. people named W.A. Mozart). An 1783 letter was even more blunt: " I care very little for Salzburg and not at all for the archbishop: I shit on both of them."

And yet, as he had in Paris, he put negative thoughts aside to compose yet another masterpiece, this time for graduation ceremonies at the University of Salzburg. The Serenade No. 9, K. 320 is nicknamed the "Posthorn" because of a little fanfare for that humble instrument in the sixth of its seven movements. The posthorn is a small valveless cylindrical brass instrument that was used to announce to arrival of a mail coach or a post rider in Mozart's day and it's uncertain why he used it here. "Whether the graduating students interpreted this as 'Later, chumps!' or 'Stay in touch, will you?' is unclear," writes René Spencer Saller in her program notes, "but they certainly understood its relevance to their much-anticipated summer break."

The serenade, back in the 18th century, was essentially glorified background music-trivial stuff meant to be played during outdoor parties. However, as Aaron Grad writes in program notes for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, "Mozart defied that trend, elevating the serenade to the sophistication of the concert hall while retaining the form's airy, celebratory spirit. It is no surprise that Mozart successfully retooled some of his most ambitious serenades into symphonies, most notably the 'Haffner' Symphony, recycled after its initial use at the wedding of a family friend."

Written for a fairly large ensemble by 18th century standards (fifty musicians will be performing it this weekend), the work gets off to a grand start with winds and tympani and continues to entertain and delight for another forty minutes. It's joyful music, and it will be conducted by one of most exuberant conductors in the business.

The Essentials: Nicholas McGegan conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, with violin soloist Jennifer Koh, in an all-Mozart program on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., October 7 and 8. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. Saturday's concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio.

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