June 10, 2008 | With Mainly Mozart, this Music App 101 series moves from Bach into the heart of the western art music tradition, the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

This is a leap. Still, as Ruben Valenzuela noted in the first story, counterpoint , in which the composer organizes sound note by note, line by line, measure by measure (or even silence by silence), remains the core value of counterpoint.

In these centuries, organization moved inexorably toward bigger sound, bigger ensembles of instruments, greater complexities and textures, and increasing challenges for performers and audiences. Organization also meant diversity, of forms and inspiration. Composers freely used folk music and American jazz. The Romantic mood of the nineteenth century shifted into shattered harmonies that reflected the broken world of the twentieth century.

An added attraction with this year’s twentieth anniversary season is that Mainly Mozart has moved into the newly restored Balboa Theatre as its resident ensemble. Balboa’s purpose is to take sound directly to the audience’s ears, as David Atherton, Mainly Mozart’s artistic director put it.

The sound of Mainly Mozart is intense, beginning with a cannon-shot concert on June 10; John Lill will play all five of Beethoven’s concertos. Most pianists will perform just one of the concertos in a guest appearance.

In this marathon, “You hear the composer developing in front of your ears,” Atherton said. Beethoven wrote the classically-oriented First in 1791, when he was 27. Beethoven finished the Fifth in 1809, as he approached 40, and a friend named it the “Emperor.” Bold and heroic, the Fifth is written on a grand scale, so the name is apt. Still, all the concertos retain exquisite slower and melodic movements. The transition from the second to the third movement in the Fifth is edge-of-the-seat delicacy.

The festival moves forward from this extraordinary evening with a more representative program of selected works of composers including Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Brahms, Schubert, and others from the western tradition.

Besides Mozart, Atherton is also devoting attention to Richard Strauss, who straddled the shift from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Born in 1864, Strauss died in 1949, and his music is steeped in Romanticism, although he reorganized harmonies in response to new ways of listening.

Strauss lived through two wars and had a controversial relationship with Nazism. He insisted he was apolitical, yet he accepted posts in the government and wrote the anthem for the 1936 Olympics. The (Jewish) American officer who appeared at Strauss’s house in 1945, as the allies took over Germany, recognized him, and the Americans protected him.

Covering the entire festival is impossible, although the June 20 concert reflects the diversity of its musical ideas and the level of its talent. It is not, however, representative, because the orchestra will be absent. Adam Neiman and Jeremy Denk will perform keyboard works.

Of the five works on their program, two are for solo piano and the others for duet (four-hands). Tremendous talent will be on the stage for this concert. Both artists are around 30. In 1996 and 1998, Neiman and Denk respectively won the Young Concert Artists International Competition (think “American Idol” with actually talented musicians). Both regularly receive rave reviews.

Their careers have followed separate paths, and their web sites show two very different personalities. Neiman’s site is well organized, with his current season laid out like a train schedule; he’s coming here between gigs in Tokyo and Seattle. A passionate player who composes his own music, including a first symphony underway, the cool and ascetic Neiman favors traditional works.

Neiman will perform Richard Strauss’ Sonata in B minor. Audiences know Strauss for his big works (“Zarathustra”) and operas (“Salome” or “Die Rosenkavalier). Atherton said that his smaller chamber works are not often heard. The B minor Sonata immediately follows a work of Mozart, one of Strauss’s loves.

Contained within a traditional four-movement classical structure, this 25-minute sonata, which Strauss wrote at the age of 17, fits Neiman’s style. Richly melodic and alternately intimate and grand, it’s a delicious wrap, with Schumann, Mendelssohn and Mozart tucked inside.

The eccentric great pianist Glenn Gould said he was addicted to Strauss’s music the way some people are addicted to chocolate. Gould admired what he called the “tautness of harmony” in the composer’s work. He set aside his beloved Bach long enough to record this sonata, which, even at Strauss’s early age, displays that “tautness.”

Denk’s web site is messier. We have no idea of his 2008 schedule (he’s Joshua Bell’s regular performing partner), but his up-to-date blog pairs his loves of music and food. On posts earlier this year, he worshipped at the altars of Bach, Ives, and Stravinksy and reported humming Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto while strolling on Broadway.

Denk will play Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1. The composer’s name is enough to drive some music lovers out of a concert hall; he was one of the leaders in the atonal movement that shattered traditional harmonies. But this piece is his first published work (1907-08), and it will be a surprise for modern-musicphobes.

“The piano sonata is approachable, not too long, and it ties together with the transparency and classical structure of a Mozart sonata,” Atherton said.

With intimate, breathless phrasing, the sonata is just 11 minutes long. To unify and give weight to the work, Berg combines the linear sonata form — announcing, exposing and then developing an idea — with another form — variations on a single idea.

Neiman and Denk will team up for the three works on the rest of the program.

Mozart’s Sonata in C for piano duet was probably written for the Jacquin family. Mozart and the son, both around 30, were close friends, and the composer was a regular at convivial gatherings for dinner, cards and family music-making.

The sonata’s key signature — C Major — and its classical structure show that this is comfort food, easy for a couple of talented amateurs to play. Mozart’s perfection, however, lurks underneath its playfulness to challenge Neiman and Denk.

If you think you’ve hear Wutold Lutoslawski’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini,” you’re right; Brahms and Rachmaninoff did variations.

But you’ve never heard it like this. Lutoslawksi wrote this five-minute piece in 1940-41, after he was released from a German camp for Polish POWs; he had walked 400 kilometers to get home to Warsaw. To make money, he and an army buddy worked as entertainers in cabarets, performing their own arrangements. The “Variations” was one of them.

A take-off on the Caprice No. 24 of Nicolo Paginini — a finger-breaking piece to begin with — Lutoslawski gives us a jazzy crazy ride with crashing chords. This is “a very, very clever piece, great fun,” Atherton said.

Finally, you’ve also heard Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” but not like this. The rousing orchestra piece is an audience favorite, but Rachmaninoff originally wrote it in 1940 for two pianos. The orchestral arrangement was his final work before he died in 1943.

Atherton described the 32-minute “Dances” as “an incredibly complicated, difficult piece.” The first movement speeds headlong toward insistent chords, while the second movement moves along like a waltz, with themes rolling over a steady, almost sinister undertow. In the final movement, Rachmaninoff alternates between furiously spinning out themes and then retreating quietly to reconsider others. The piece ends with a series of crashing chords.

Because of its many strands and textures, “Symphonic Dances” for piano is not performed or recorded frequently, and it will be a test for two such different personalities as Neiman and Denk. While they start the concert with Mozart’s playful sonata, with this work they play at grown-up games.

Mainly Mozart has another test this season. The group will settle into its new home not just for a quick sound test but for a couple of weeks of music-making — 10 concerts over 12 days. While much has been written about Balboa’s marvelous details, like the restored waterfalls, what counts is how the music will sound for the musicians and the audience. Will the lines of music ring clearly or will they be muddled? Is the house “dry,” tending to mute sounds or “wet,” where sound bounces off the wall around the hall?

The reverb time for music is different from that for speech, although people expect an all-purpose hall to work for everything. “It can’t, no matter how you doctor it electronically,” Atherton said.

He consulted with acousticians, and he reports that the restoration is well-thought out, for instance in getting the air conditioning to work silently. “I’m very confident that it will be a wonderful home for us,” Atherton said. What about concert-goers? Let me know.

[For rare footage of Glenn Gould talking about Strauss, watch this.]


Mainly Mozart runs from June 10-22 at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., with times at 2, 7 and 8 p.m. (closing concert at CA Center for the Arts, Escondido and an orchestra concert on June 20 at the Centro Cultural de Tijuana). Single tickets $20-$125. Three hours of parking validated at Horton Plaza for concert-goers. For complete information, go to www.mainlymozart.org or call 619-239-0100, Ext. 2.

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