Concerted Efforts

Two segments remain (February 17-18, March 17-18) of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s two-year sweep through the piano concertos of Mozart: Saturdays at Glendale’s Alex Theatre, Sundays at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The turnouts have been close to capacity; it’s not just my imagination that I’ve absorbed these concerts as a kind of communion, a closeness in which Mozart, Jeffrey Kahane at the piano, and his marvelous orchestra have been participants on an equal level, all of us with something important and wonderful to say, to hear and to believe in.

That’s Mozart, and I say this not to explain, just to marvel. At the concert in mid-December, there were three concertos: two from 1784 composed only weeks apart, one from two years later. The first (K. 451, referring to Ritter von Köchel’s chronological listing) is a jovial, rawboned work full of tricks — the piano bursting in too soon, that sort of thing. The second, K. 456, is colored with darker moods, with a slow movement, a set of melancholy variations, that suddenly jolts you by a turn from minor to major with strange and marvelous changes of light. Ending that program was K. 503, music from more troubled times, two years later. Don Giovanni and the G-minor String Quintet were now on Mozart’s worktable, and the piano concerto had become for him a more imposing kind of musical drama, its opening phrases in this case like blocks of granite colliding. (It had also begun to lose Mozart the audience that the more frivolous earlier concertos had earned.) In this work, too, there are later kinds of jolt: a tantalizing alternation between major and minor, a sudden, sublime theme out of nowhere midway in the finale.

Concerto Conversations (Harvard University Press) is Joseph Kerman’s book on the way the inner life of a piece of music stems from the confrontation of the parts within that music, with the concerto through the ages as the paradigm for that kind of wordless drama. My Berkeley classroom memories teem with Kerman’s passion for this aspect of the musical language; I’ve asserted my own kindred spirit by dedicating my latest book to him. Some pages in his own book express his particular delight in those magical Mozart moments when the solo piano makes its first appearance in a concerto after the orchestra has made some kind of opening statement: the hilarious arabesque leading to a trill at the start of the so-called “Elvira Madigan” Concerto (K. 467); the shy testing-the-waters, one toe at a time, at the start of K. 503. Concertos model human relationships, Kerman claims, and even as he moves on from Mozart into music you wouldn’t be found dead listening to — not the first of Saint-Saëns’ two cello concertos but the second, of all dead-as-doornail repertory! — he succeeds in finding in these works a dogged adherence to the dramatic principles that establish the concerto as the most subtle (because wordless) of musical forms. All told, Kerman’s book forms quite a thrilling compendium on matters of musical rhetoric, and of deviations from norms made acceptable only by their being set to music. (Anna Russell: “You can get away with anything, so long as you sing it.”)

The Major and the Minor

I write here rather often about goose bumps, about moments in music that activate the tear ducts or the shiver glands or whatever those reactive mechanisms are called — actually, something in the brain called the “left insula,” if anyone cares — and whatever they are, I bear them with pride. Something about the Mozart piano concerto is particularly dangerous ground for the care and feeding of the goose bump, for reasons not difficult to fathom. A pianist in proper tune with this music — Jeffrey Kahane, Emanuel Ax, Mitsuko Uchida — succeeds after very few notes in converting that great, clumsy music box into an instrument of pure song.

It takes very few fingers. The passages in Mozart’s piano concertos, in fact, that most readily reduce the listener’s spirit to a state comparable to a box of molten Godiva are usually nothing more than one-finger tunes: the slow movements of the aforementioned K. 467 (reduced to the status of slush, alas, by the background-music guys), K. 488 and K. 595. More readily than any of these, it is the slow movement of K. 482 that enslaves me utterly on every hearing. It turned up on Kahane’s final program last season. Emanuel Ax performed it with the Philharmonic this past November with Alexander Mickelthwate conducting. It is one of the most richly scored of all the Mozart concertos, with almost a full complement of winds, plus timpani. The work is in E flat, which for a 1786 orchestra means a full workout for clarinets and horns; their tuning makes them easier to play in flat keys.

The slow movement begins with a rather dour minor tune, with stops and starts and a stark harmonic palette. Over a series of slow variations, these sparse harmonies become gradually filled in, and one pretty variant — with a solo flute — seems to herald a warming trend. Even so, for a work whose first movement had been fairly jolly, and with horns and clarinets on hand to warm up the atmosphere, this still seems rather stern stuff until . . .

The minor tune takes on a new shape, a closing cadence of deep, tragic sentiment, breath-stopping in its simple beauty. And at its end, for just a few seconds, a cloud across the sunset, it quietly slips from minor to a sunburst of momentary major in what we call a deceptive cadence. The sky clears, the movement comes to an end; the silence allows us to breathe, to wonder, “What hit me?” Then the music starts again: the finale, with a tune that might almost pass for “The Farmer in the Dell.” That, as I was saying, is Mozart.

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