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Festival shares Mozart’s secrets |

Festival shares Mozart’s secrets

Mark Kanny
| Saturday, April 19, 2014 6:17 p.m
Felix Broede
Conductor and music director Manfred Honeck
Rob Davidson
William Caballero of the Pittsburgh Symphony
Pittsburgh Symphony
Pianist Robert Levin

There are always new aspects to discover in the work of a genius, none more so than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

“Mozart is an endless story,” Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck is happy to say. “Every day when spring comes, I am surprised that I didn’t enjoy the colors as much before. It seems to me the more I get older, the more I enjoy the flowers. It’s the same with Mozart, the more I enjoy the secrets of his music-making.”

Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony launch a two-week Mozart Festival with concerts April 25 to 27 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is the Serenade “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with an improvisation in Mozart’s style by soloist Robert Levin, and Symphony No. 41 in C major, which has acquired the nickname “Jupiter.”

Levin and symphony musicians will give a concert of Mozart’s chamber music April 29, featuring two of his supreme masterpieces — the G minor Piano Quartet and Clarinet Quintet. The event is a co-presentation with Chamber Music Pittsburgh, the new name of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society.

The second week of concerts at Heinz Hall will offer excerpts of religious and operatic music.

“I think he’s a divine composer,” Honeck says. “I believe he has such an enormous genius for all the elements of humanity and the ability to describe it in the music. His music is extremely pure and can be extremely funny. At the same time, you hear an undertone which brings you to another emotional direction.”

The first piece of Mozart that Honeck heard was the “Coronation” Mass, but he says it was when he was able to play the Mozart violin concerti himself that he felt a new approach to his music. By the time he was 18 or 20, Honeck realized there were many aspects of Mozart he hadn’t appreciated.

“In Mozart, I discover every time new things, which make him so special. I was born with Mozart, I would say. I loved him but did not really understand him when I was young,” Honeck says. “I was interested in the quick parts — the lively and the funny. But his strength is, I think, in the slow passages where you find so many rich colors and harmonies that you are surprised somehow.”

The concert will feature a new version of the Horn Concerto No. 1 prepared by Levin, who also is a musicologist on the faculty of Harvard University. He found it very touching when he examined the manuscript — where the accompaniment was not written out except for a principal voice in the strings — to see arithmetic at the bottom of the page where Mozart was trying to figure out how to pay his rent.

“The differences will, in some cases, be more subtle, in others more salient,” Levin says. “The fact is the composition of this concerto never was brought to term by Mozart. Like the Requiem, it was left incompleted when he died his early death on Dec. 5, 1791.”

Franz Xaver Sussmayr, who completed Mozart’s Requiem, also finished the Horn Concerto No. 1. The numbering of the concerti is off, Levin says. What we call the first concerto should be numbered the fourth.

All of Mozart’s horn concerti were written for his friend Joseph Leutgeb (1731-1811), who was especially admired for his lyrical playing. Although he could formerly play up to a high C, by the time Mozart wrote the concerto that will be played at Heinz Hall, Leutgeb had lost some of his teeth, Levin says, as well as his high notes and low notes. He also couldn’t play for more than 30 to 40 seconds at a time.

“My task, as I understood it,” Levin says, “was not to create a version but to produce two versions — the versions (Mozart) conceived and the second one he was compelled to make when he realized the guy couldn’t cut the mustard. Mozart didn’t write for horn. He wrote for the hornist.”

“We’re doing the version with teeth,” principal horn William Caballero says. “There are a few additions. It doesn’t have the challenges of (Concerti) Two or Four, but Robert has found enough new things, including the addition of missing bars in the last movement — a mini development. There are also different articulations that I am not used to. I used to slur more.”

Levin will be the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and, to open the second half, will play an improvisation based on a theme submitted by the audience. He’s improvised at hundreds of concerts.

“I have fun speaking in this man’s language,” Levin says. “The fact is, music is a language of communication and, to my mind, ideally, a musical performance is an act of storytelling.

“It’s not like being an actor in a play. When you become a reproducer of soundbytes written by somebody on paper, the sense of freedom, volatility and risk disappear. Until well into the 19th and, in some cases, 20th century, anyone who performed also was trained as a composer and could improvise a cadenza. What happened, especially in the 20th century and into our century, is we have been trained more and more as reproducers of texts rather than orators. The only place in classical music where there’s an unbroken tradition of improvisation is organists.”

Mark Kanny is classical music for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

Categories: Music
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