Friday, November 14, 2008

Holy Mo

It is no coincidence that many musical audition processes choose to hear a bit of Mozart and another bit of Bach. I could claim that after hearing a few minutes of each I pretty well know how a person plays, or at least how musical the individual is. Naturally, there are other composers whose compositions are better suited to show off fireworks but the musical, or artistic, content of a Bazzini virtuoso piece is relatively empty fluff. There are works where 80% rate in correct notes and intonation is sufficient but with these two giants it is all or nothing.

Johann Sebastian's genius seldom opens up to a young person. I have heard numerous absolutely awful interpretations of sonata and partita movements for solo violin, performed by otherwise capable wunderkinder. Even my first teacher Arno Granroth, a pupil of Thibaud, got almost nothing out of Bach. Luckily I had an opportunity to study those works with others, especially Ricardo Odnoposoff, who had an incredible understanding of the architecture of the composer's works. All of a sudden I clearly saw where the sometimes little motives started and ended, and learned to look for polyphony written for a single four-stringed instrument, as if it were an organ. I still discover new things, or possible options, wherever I play or teach these works. Even the great Jascha Heifetz seems to be often at a loss as how to interpret Bach and speeds the movements up, perhaps to cover up this uncomfortable feeling.

Wolfgang Amadeus doesn't necessarily call for an overly analytical interpretation, of course depending on the work. Sometimes one hears an incredible performance of a concerto by a mere child or youngster. Such an innocent soul hears the music as it was intended to play. At the other extreme is an orchestra conductor whose parts are so full of most artificial markings it is difficult to see the notes. Mozart was not a complicated person. You either get his music or you don't. Just the other day a new student played the first movement of a concerto of his, for the first time but with astonishingly natural phrasing. I really like this song! she declared. Mozart was blessed with very rare musical genius and at his best he could compose masterpieces without thinking. He was also a cursed individual with almost uncivilized tendencies, although having grown up entertaining aristocrats and royalty, one would assume he should have known what proper behavior and etiquette called for. Many have labeled him as a victim of Tourette's and numerous other diagnoses have been made centuries later, to explain the paradox between his heavenly compositional skills and outright rude style of writing in his letters.

Mozart wrote his great Sonata in D for two pianos for a supposedly brilliant Josepha von Auernhammer. The composer was not exactly eye-candy himself but yet he used these words to describe his patron: If a painter wished to portray the devil to the life, he would have to choose her face! She is as fat as a farm wench, she sweats so that you want to vomit, and goes about so scantily clad that you can read as plain as print, 'Pray do look here.' True, there is enough to see; in fact enough to strike one blind – but one is punished for the rest of the day if one is unlucky to let one's eyes wander in that direction. Tartar is the only remedy, she is so horrible, so loathsome and so dirty! Augh, she is a very fright!

It is hard to imagine that someone capable of writing such heavenly music could at the same time be so crude. Perhaps aspects of this tendency sometimes transfer to compositions as well, such as in the dark moments of Don Giovanni or the less-than-delicate "Turkish" part in the Finale of the A major violin concerto. Like so many other musical greats, such as Mendelssohn and Schubert, Mozart met with an untimely death and thus it is even harder for us to understand what made him 'tick.'

There is one piece of music, mostly by Mozart's hand, that I either love or deeply dislike. I am of course talking about the Requiem which was finished by someone else. It is as if there are two versions of the Mass for the Dead: one for Christ, the other Antichrist. Most performances during my life have been of the latter variety, bombastic, with no understanding of the sacred content behind it; a blasphemy if you want to call it that. Then there are those magic moments when the Requiem is done in the proper form, as a part of a Mass, by people who know the work inside out. Every minute detail's meaning is clear and the performance is so full of spiritualism that even an agnostic or an atheist finds himself floating half way between Earth and Heaven. I have experienced this on different continents over the years but of course the strongest association is the most recent one right here at St. James Cathedral just two weeks ago, for their All Souls Requiem. This was my third year being part of it and every year the experience and musical level seems to ascend to new heights. It is simply astonishing that a local congregation with its own choral and soloists can create something so splendid. Word gets around: no wonder the mighty cathedral had standing room only for the last half hour before the start.

There are a few times when I have to think like a Catholic. My grandfather's favorite books, and thus mine, were about a post-war Italian priest Don Camillo and the little town's communist mayor Peppone, as told by Giuseppe Guareschi. The stories can only be fully appreciated when the reader becomes a simple witness of unfolding events in the valley of River Po. Living utterly alone as a teenager in Vienna and in Paris, visiting their magnificent cathedrals brought me inner peace. I don't think I've ever been to New York without a trip to St. Patrick's, although at times it resembles a sight-seeing destination for tourists. But being and working with the nice and genuinely loving people at St. James is probably the most meaningful of all at this time of my life. Father Ryan's wise words and the musical accomplishments of Jim Savage and his troops keep any Antichrist far away, at least well over on the other side of the freeway.

Mozart 1790 by Johann Georg Edlinger
All Souls 2008 © St. James Cathedral