Photo Courtesy Opera PacificI had harsh words a few weeks ago about the key of D minor, as exploited in singularly unappealing works by Brahms and Schoenberg. But then came Mozart in that key: the demons rampant through Don Giovanni at Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa, the Requiem as sung by the Master Chorale at the Music Center — music familiar and beloved, packed with new things to be discovered at each new hearing.

Keys mattered in Mozart’s time, for reasons both practical and ethical. Wind and brass instruments were tuned to particular keys. Mozart wrote a concerto and quintet for a solo clarinet tuned to A, and there is an A-major episode for clarinets, in the slow movement of the K. 488 piano concerto, that could break your heart. The martial majesty of the “Jupiter” Symphony and the “Elvira Madigan” Piano Concerto is enhanced by the trumpets in C. Beyond that, composers attached expressive aspects to certain keys. In Haydn’s string quartets the slow movements with complex key signatures — F-sharp major in Opus 76 No. 5, for example — always seem unusually profound. (My local Trader Joe’s has that movement on its in-store music, so I tend to linger when shopping.)

The sweep that begins Don Giovanni — the overture, the servant Leporello’s monologue, Donna Anna’s pursuit and the Don’s murder of the Commandant, an unbroken sequence like nothing in any opera before its time — revolves around D minor (with a small diversion into D major for the goodhearted, un-profound servingman); when the Commandant’s ghost returns to extract vengeance at the end, the music is once again in D minor. During the nearly three intervening hours, Mozart has carefully avoided the key, so that its return enhances the shock of that final scene.

You may think that you don’t notice matters like key changes and key returns; believe me, you do. You also shiver a little — you do, fess up! — at the violence in Mozart’s mastery of the sudden harmonic shift: the moment in Act 2 when Leporello throws off his disguise, and the music for the others (who have cornered him in the belief that he’s the Don) takes a sudden lurch into the “wrong” key. You shiver once again during the Requiem, when the chorus at the end of “Confutatis” sounds a series of wrenching, dissonant chords that form a ladder up to the infinitely sad D minor of the “Lacrimosa.” The realization that you’re hearing the notes and harmonies from Mozart’s last hours on his deathbed only deepens the poignancy of those measures. Minutes before that extraordinarily moving music, you have been hammered upon by the “Dies irae,” the most harrowing unleashing I know of the demons who haunt the key of D minor.

Costa Mesa’s Don Giovanni had its virtues, plus a few minor vices. It struck me as sheer willfulness for director Thor Steingraber to have his Giovanni pull out a pistol to finish off the Commandant, while Mozart’s orchestra clearly defines the whiplash thrusts of dueling swords. Small bits like that through the evening did put my teeth on edge. But there were Christine Goerke’s agonized, smoldering Anna to make amends, and a few comic touches in Pamela Armstrong’s Elvira to soften the proto-Freudian hysteria of that role. William Shimell’s Giovanni was
somewhat stiff, while Kyle Ketelsen’s young, handsome and infinitely insinuating Leporello made one wish that he and his master had swapped roles in Act 2, not merely cloaks. Best of all was John DeMain’s musical leadership, fleet in momentum and with the crucial ensemble work beautifully balanced. Opera Pacific grows apace.

So does the Master Chorale under the born-again leadership of Grant Gershon. Henryk Górecki’s Miserere began the program, a stunning piece stunningly performed and worth more space than a mere afterthought in a Mozart outpouring.

(Sit tight; there’s always next week.) The Requiem was capitally performed: dark, menacing and powerful. The “Dies irae” lifted me out of my seat; those aforementioned harmonies in the “Confutatis” sent the requisite shivers; William Booth’s solo trombone in the “Tuba mirum,” meant by Mozart to waken the dead, could have done just that. The edition was that of Robert Levin, who has clarified many orchestral passages in Franz Süssmayr’s flawed completion of his master’s unfinished score. Most striking is Levin’s addition of a fugal peroration — found in some other Mozart manuscript — to bring the “Lacrimosa” to a far more shapely ending.

Robert Levin himself had been in town the week before, to perform Mozart’s C-minor Piano Concerto (K. 491) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and to Do His Thing. He is a recognized authority on 18th-century performance practice, especially on the matter of a performer’s improvisation on a composer’s written-down notes in the body of, say, a concerto, and most of all in the cadenza at the end of a movement where the soloist is expected to pick up the substance of that movement and run with it. Levin’s cadenzas for K. 491 were full of the right kinds of tricks; the one for the first movement did run on a bit, but apparently orchestras in Mozart’s day didn’t get to think about overtime. (Lars Vogt also played — or should I say punched out — K. 491 with the Philharmonic at a recent concert under Yakov Kreizberg, in a performance more dutiful than beautiful.)

Levin is also given to lecturing, and to demonstrating his findings and theories; his ranking among scholars, I am told, is high. Now, however, he has also decided to go public with his act. The audience at the LACO concert was given slips of music paper and asked to write down themes that Levin would pick out and improvise upon in the manner that had brought fame and fortune to Mozart and, later, to Beethoven. This was all fun as far as it went, but that was too far. For a performer today to indulge in an improv à la Mozart is something of a cheat; there is too much of the Mozartian language in common circulation to expect something new and original from this kind of act. After all, Mozart and Beethoven were improvising from their awareness of the music of their own time; the counterpart would be for Levin, or you or me, to improvise à la John Adams or Boulez. Mr. Levin’s deserved acclaim has, I fear, left him rather full of himself, and that distracted from his stage presence all evening — although less so in the final work, the marvelous Two-Piano Concerto (K. 365) that he performed with Jeffrey Kahane, and for which Mozart had written down every note, cadenzas included.

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