high on handel (chapter three)

Chapter Three

YouTube leads its own life: once a video is posted, you don’t have much control over who watches it and how far it reaches. I had posted “Handel hits the Road” and “Handel At Home” and thought it already was quite an adventure. I could not suspect what would happen next.

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I was traveling to São Paulo, Brazil for a concert during a festival called Virada Cultural: a one-day festival with many stages and different art forms. The plan was to play a normal concert on a standard stage with works by Schumann and Fauré. However, the Artistic Director had seen my videos and thought that I might fit his own project. He was working with an activist who wanted to bring music to the people and he asked me: “Daria, are you afraid of heights?”. I replied: “Well, no, not that I know of. I do not really like stunts. But I am on a mission and the weirdest things have happened to me so let’s try this”.

The result you can see here.

My triptych is finished, and I am satisfied with the outcome. Many people who did not know keyboard music by Handel have been introduced to it. I still receive many messages from people who did not really listen to keyboard music at all until they heard Handel. But my life with this composer as well as so many others will continue and the experiences and interaction with so many people opened up a lot of new thoughts and possibilities. I like seeing if one can be drawn into music like I am always drawn to it. And I like finding the stage that fits best for different music, because that is also an interesting challenge. I believe it is possible to communicate this in both the modern world of today as well as on the most beautiful of places: the concert stage.

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handel at home (chapter two)

Chapter Two
Six months after my experience playing the streets of Amsterdam, winter came to the city. A week before my CD recording sessions in Hannover, Germany, I felt the incredible need to do something wild again. The reason was twofold: I wanted to perform my program a few more times before recording and I had not lost the desire to reach as many people as possible with Handel’s music. We sat down to think what I could do. January in Amsterdam means possible frozen canals and occasional snow, so in any case it was no option at all to do something outside again.

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Instead I went out on the street where I live and invited random people in for a short house concert in my apartment. It ended up being one of the scariest things I have ever done: I started conversations with complete strangers – luckily I live in quite a safe neighborhood and of course I always had the choice with whom I would speak – and invited them. While I was outside inviting strangers to my home, a good friend waited in the apartment and poured the audience a cup of tea until I came inside to perform. An important part of this exercise was my desire to also invite my neighbors in the street and the owners of the many shops I daily frequent. Why not make everybody I know, and see often, part of the experience? It was a fantastic afternoon. I gave four ten-minute house concerts and it was full house: people came in!

And up to this day my relationship with my neighbors has intensified. In fact, yesterday the owner of the Dutch cheese shop on the corner – who sponsored the lovely afternoon with a platter of cheese- loved the fact that I was going to Los Angeles and made me promise to tell him all the stories I will experience. I will!

Together with my team of creative people we immortialized these Amsterdam moments on film. Because if you really want to spread the music, what quicker way is there than Youtube? I couldn’t imagine though who would see it once it was uploaded…I will tell you about it in Chapter 3.

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climb inside the time machine before LACO’s mozart jupiter

There’s oodles of reasons to be excited for the upcoming Mozart Jupiter concert (it’s this weekend! Do you have your tickets?). Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein will lead from the podium, guest cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan will grace the stage, and the program includes the west coast premiere of Joseph Hallman‘s imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres. Dig a little deeper, though, (as Christine Gengaro did in her program notes), and you’ll see that each of the three pieces in the program comes from a different century. How ’bout we hop in the time machine and the visit the periods when Mozart and Saint-Saëns were putting pencil to paper and composing the works that’ll be performed this weekend?

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First stop: 1872. In Paris, 37-year-old composer Camille Saint-Saëns finishes construction on his Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, which will go on to become one of the highest-regarded cello concertos ever written. Meanwhile, across the pond in the United States, it was a time for construction from coast to coast. Chicago was in the beginning of a major building boom, after the Great Chicago Fire wiped out 17,000 buildings just one year prior. It also took 300 lives and left 100,000 people homeless.

While Chicago was rebuilding after a disaster, thousands of laborers in New York City were also hard at work changing that city’s skyline. They were in the third year of building the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, which would ultimately take 13 years to complete. By 1872, the foundations for the tower were well underway. It wouldn’t be until 1875 that the towers would be completed. Eight years were needed to then string the cables and build the road, before opening to the public in 1883.

It wasn’t just cities that were taking shape in 1872 – the wild, wild west was also changing. Yellowstone National Park was established as the first national park that same year. The enormous park, measuring 63 miles by 54 miles (over 2.2 million acres!) is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and was named after the river that begins in the park and flows northeast for nearly 700 miles, before joining the Missouri river near the Montana/North Dakota border.

Next stop: 1788. 32-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart puts the final touches on his 41st Symphony in August of that year. It eventually becomes known as the “Jupiter” symphony, and it’s the final symphony he will ever write.

While that chapter is ending in Europe, a new beginning is quickly blossoming on our shores: the birth of the United States. The Revolutionary War ended five years earlier, and the founding fathers have written a new constitution. By the time 1788 rolls around, three states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey) have already ratified it, and by the end of that year, two more states, Georgia and Connecticut, join the list. Just a few months later, in February 1789, George Washington was elected our country’s first President, and he was inaugurated two months after that, at Federal Hall in New York City.

1789 also saw the introduction of the first pasta machine to the United States, brought over by none other than future president Thomas Jefferson, when he returned from his travels in Paris. Pasta was all the rage in Paris kitchens at the time, and Jefferson became enamored. He probably wasn’t the first to make pasta in the US, but he was the first to make it using a machine (which basically extruded dough into macaroni shapes), and he greatly popularized it by serving it at dinners at Monticello.

Final Stop: 2015. Come at the Alex Theatre or Royce Hall, and be a part of history when Joseph Hallman’s imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres is performed on the west coast for the first time!

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I always warn my voice students that they don’t have the luxury of putting their instrument away. While a violinist can put her violin in a case, a clarinetist can take apart his clarinet, and a guitarist can place the instrument on a stand, a singer cannot disconnect the voice from the body. It is subject to illness, fatigue, and tension, and it has to be treated especially carefully because it’s used not just for singing, but for talking and laughing and yelling. When I got laryngitis a month before my Masters recital, I wished I’d taken up some instrument that didn’t get sick right along with me. But it turns out, every once in a while, a composer will ask an instrumentalist to sing, chant, or otherwise vocalize during a piece of music.

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The very first piece I ever heard that asked the instrumentalists to vocalize was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dance Suite from West Side Story. I’d seen West Side Story, and I knew the Mambo “battle” well. When my high school band played Bernstein’s suite from the musical, I took great pleasure in watching my friends shout the word, “Mambo!” from their seats on stage. There was something odd about it, though, to see an instrumentalist say even a single word while playing. Almost as if while on stage, their instruments should be their only means of communication. I definitely had the sense that words were for singers only, and that instrumentalists could communicate in pure notes alone.

In college, I heard a recording of George Crumb’s 1970 piece for amplified string quartet, Black Angels. At first I thought there was a mistake with the CD. Why did I hear chanting? But in looking at the score, I saw words there. The members of the string quartet were asked to chant along at certain points. They were also called upon to hit crystal glasses and wear metal thimbles to tap the strings. Crumb was an innovator in many ways, and this piece came at a time when this addition of vocal sounds from the instrumentalists shouldn’t have come as any surprise. But in my youth, I remember thinking, “Can a composer just ask his instrumentalists to sing along? Would he have to pay them extra?”

I can also recall seeing one of my colleagues from graduate school perform a solo flute piece that used extended techniques, including making “percussive vocalizations” into the instrument. The effects were so striking, and the piece so fascinating that I remembered the name of the work even though I must have seen this recital well over a decade ago. It’s called Zoom Tube (2001), and the composer is Ian Clarke.

One of the pieces on LACO’s upcoming concert is a recent composition by Joseph Hallman. Like Crumb’s Black Angels and other works like it, Hallman’s imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres calls upon the instrumentalists to sing and chant along in specific places. I am especially excited to hear this work live not only because the instrumentalists will vocalize, something I find quite refreshing, but also because of Hallman’s inspiration for the work. While suffering from insomnia, Hallman began reading the stories of HP Lovecraft (1890-1937). On these evenings, if sleep came to him, Hallman’s dreams were colored by Lovecraft’s Gothic horror fiction. The settings of the stories, in particular, were foremost in his mind. If you know anything about Lovecraft, you know that these settings were well-described and quite complex. How Hallman transformed these dreamlike sensations into music is a statement of Hallman’s creativity. The six miniatures of imagined landscapes are going to be something wonderful and fascinating to experience live.

It’s not every day that an instrumentalist vocalizes as part of a musical work, but the growing frequency of such techniques proves that composers are still looking for ways to expand their color palate. To such a composer, every instrumentalist can be thought of as being in possession of two instruments, the one they chose and the one that they were born with. It’s interesting to see both instruments being used in the same piece, although the vocalizing can be as simple as chanting sounds or words in rhythm without thought to pitch. These players aren’t asked to sing like opera divas, but they can add another layer of sound, another thread to the texture, just by using their voices. Not everyone will appreciate these kinds of extended techniques, but I, for one, am excited to hear the very human sound of voices coming from a bunch of players known for amazing skill on their chosen instruments.

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handel hits the road (chapter one)

As a musician, I am used to sitting alone on a stage and to play for people who have made the decision to attend a concert and to spend the evening listening to a pianist.

A couple of years ago I did something that was totally the opposite. I decided to play in locations where I would reach an audience unexpectedly, an audience that normally does not attend a concert hall. I wanted to reach people with the music of Handel.

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Chapter One

My first experience was in Amsterdam, where I played on a piano towed by a car. We went 10 miles an hour and stood still in between, and I played Handel in streets and near canals that already existed, or were built at the time when the composer was still alive. It was a beautiful sunny day and the city was crowded with Amsterdammers and tourists on a Friday afternoon.

The experience moved me a lot. My contact with the unsuspecting audience was very open and electric. People reacted from the heart, they came up to me and asked questions like “Is this Bach?” or just listened closely. Children looked into the piano whenever I stopped. People on bicycles cycled next to me as I was playing. And everybody was taking photos. I realized that most of the people I played for never go to a concert hall, and there could be so many reasons why they wouldn’t. This was a way for me to play on their terms: I was making a step towards the audience and it felt good. Of course there were also people who did not stop — and there could be so many reasons for that, but I was not trying to please everyone. I was doing an experiment of playing Handel (only Handel! — nothing else) outside in a city to see if people would react to it and love it just as much as I love this music. I never thought this afternoon would impress me as much as it did. And I learned a great deal from it — mostly about the relationship you have as a musician with your audience, and the responsibility you have for how the music you play reaches the ear of the listener. It is something very special. I decided to take it a step further, and I will continue this story in my next blog!

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defining an architect’s approach

It is an honor to present with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The themes of “water” and “arches” and the music of Brahms for the Westside Connections program resonate with inspirations and themes to our work. The Annenberg Community Beach House, the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands as well as much of our residential and academic work highlight ephemeral qualities of reflectivity and transparency. I grew up by Lake Erie, and the adjacency to the ocean felt familiar when I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s Graduate School in Architecture. One of my classmates was Leonard Koren who created “Wet”, a Venice-based cultural magazine that brought together art, design, architecture, photography, food, film under the umbrella of “gourmet bathing”. This reflected a modern day version of Japanese “floating world” culture. The integration of themes that are distinct, dynamic, and communal is also evident in our work. With a background in art history and immersion in the local art scheme of artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Peter Alexander, Elyn Zimmerman and others, my work maintains an attachment to the experiences of sublimity, ephemerality, and ethereality.

read more →Arches has a more explicit architectural reference that I imagine translates into contemporary design as rhythm, solid and void, and framing. While we don’t use actual arches, we compose the structure of a building’s columns and walls to create a rhythmic framework. Our design for the Annenberg Community Beach House on Santa Monica Beach combines the ethereal reflections on Julia Morgans’ swimming pool with the new rhythmic colonnade that memorializes the site’s long demolished Marion Davies mansion. Composing views from within a building simultaneous to composing the exterior facades is one of the character defining aspects of an architect’s approach. Framing is a visual device long used to edit and intensify views. We learned from the way James Turrell, with whom we have collaborated, frames a piece of the sky to turn an ephemeral natural phenomenon into an art experience. With each project, we look to create a tailored experience that is responsive to the programmatic needs of the project, and unique to our clients. ↑ less ↑

finding inspiration

Mendelssohn took a trip to Scotland and wrote the opening measures to the Hebrides Overture. In the second movement of his Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns borrowed an Egyptian melody he heard while sailing on the Nile. After the death of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, Modest Mussorgsky penned Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano piece inspired by Hartmann’s visual art. Music history is filled with the stories of compositions that arose from varied sources of inspiration. Olivier Messiaen and Ottorino Respighi drew upon the songs of the birds. Maurice Ravel dedicated each movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin to a friend or friends he had lost in World War I. In my years as a program annotator, I’ve done a lot of research, and in addition to figuring out when a piece was written and what was going on in a composer’s life at the time, I like to see if there is an underlying inspiration for a work of music. Some of the things I’ve uncovered over the years have been truly surprising, and I am constantly fascinated by these stories.

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Some sources of inspiration are timeless. Of course it makes sense that the weather would inspire more composers than just Vivaldi. Weather is a constant presence in our lives (although my east coast friends would probably argue that sunny and 70 degrees is barely “weather”). From Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1723) to Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons (1801) to the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808) to Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1964-1970) to the Santa Ana winds in Gernot Wolfgang’s Desert Winds, the quirks of the seasons are fertile ground for musical exploration. There have also been the works that took visual art as a point of departure. In 1927, Ottorino Respighi was planning to dedicate a new work to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a notable patron of the arts who sponsored the composer’s American tour. On a visit to the Uffizi Gallery after the tour, Respighi came upon three paintings by Botticelli, La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi), and La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). He composed the Trittico Botticelliano, or Botticelli Triptych based on these paintings. Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem in 1909 called The Island of the Dead after seeing a black and white print of Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting The Isle of the Dead.

But now that we’re in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to think of the kinds of things that might be inspiring composers now and in the future. Might there be an orchestral piece based on an “app?” Or a symphony based on a ringtone (and not the other way around)? Of course, people will always inspire music; that will hardly change with time. But what other kinds of things will excite the creative mind? LACO’s composer-in-residence, Andrew Norman, has shown that his creative mind is open to many possibilities. A couple of seasons ago, LACO played Norman’s The Great Swiftness, a work inspired by Alexander Calder’s public sculpture La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This weekend, LACO will present Andrew Norman’s fascinating work, Gran Turismo (2004). The musical ideas in this piece took shape and direction from two main places: the influence of Futurist art, especially that of Giacomo Balla, and a video game called Gran Turismo.

Gran Turismo the game debuted in 1997 for the Playstation gaming system. Over time, it has evolved with the technology, with Gran Turismo 6 coming out in 2013. Norman composed his piece in 2004 or before, so he had access to the versions up to Gran Turismo 3. Isn’t it interesting to think that music historians in the future—perhaps someone writing the definitive biography of composer Andrew Norman—might attempt to play this game to gain insight into the composer’s thought process?

In addition to Norman’s Gran Turismo, LACO will also present three other pieces with interesting backstories. We don’t know exactly why Haydn gave his 64th Symphony the nickname “Times Change,” but I bet it was a good reason. Mozart received a commission from a flute soloist to write his First Flute Concerto, which will feature LACO’s own David Shostac. Prokofiev likewise received a commission to write his Second Violin Concerto. LACO welcomes Joseph Swensen as the soloist for this beautiful work.

It makes me very happy to see that composers writing music today are embracing the things that make them think and feel, and the things that inspire them to create. A few years ago, I wrote a program note for a piece of music by John Harbison that was inspired by the printed chords inside a music notebook he bought in Italy. Some of the most wonderful pieces come from the seemingly simplest things. Music continues to endure, and composers continue to find creative genius in things we non-composers take for granted. It doesn’t matter if that inspirational thing is as ephemeral as the song of a bird, or as new as a video game.

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David Shostac looks back at his first 40 years

It’s a whole different world than it was in 1975. Los Angeles County has grown by 3 million people, there’s been seven Presidents, and we’ve flocked to the multiplex to see 15 different James Bond films (not including the 10 that were released before 1975). One constant in this sea of change, though, is David Shostac. David was named LACO’s principal flute in 1975, and he’s held that position ever since. David is celebrating his 40th anniversary with LACO this year, and will be a featured soloist at the Mozart & Prokofiev concert on March 14 & 15 (get your tickets here). We asked David to take a little trip down memory lane, and, in this interview, he shares how he came to join LACO, recalls some favorite memories, and reveals the advice he gives to the next generation of concert musicians.

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LACO: When did you start playing the flute, and why did you pick that particular instrument? Shostac: In 2nd grade, the music teacher announced that there were two trombones available. I asked my parents (both musicians) if I could have one of them, and somehow I ended up with a flute. So I started playing the flute at 8 years old.

Do you have a favorite piece to play? I have lots of favorite pieces, including the Mozart Flute Concerto [that’s on the program for this weekend’s concerts].

Do you have a favorite venue to perform in? Why? Royce Hall and Ambassador Auditorium have lush sounds, and the Alex Theater has lots of clarity. Both have their advantages, but performers tend to prefer live acoustics. However, dry and clear is preferable to overly live sound which gets muddy and mushy.

You’ve been with LACO for 40 years. How did you end up joining LACO? What do you remember from your initial audition? I owe that to Paul Shure, LACO concertmaster at the time, for setting up an audition with Neville Mariner at a private home. I was extremely happy to be given the position, having decided upon hearing the orchestra that I belonged there.

How have you witnessed LACO, as an organization, grow or evolve since your early days with the orchestra? With each director and management, the orchestra has evolved in its own way. The level has always been extremely high, but I’d say that it has become much more than an outlet for outstanding studio musicians. It still is that, but from both an artistic and a financial viewpoint, it has reached new heights.

Do you have any favorite memories from LACO concerts or events? Too many to count! Our European tour was certainly a highlight, and an opportunity for bonding among both musicians and staff while away from everyday life in L.A.

How about any embarrassing or water-cooler moments? My worst moment was on an East Coast tour, when I didn’t hear the announcement about a change in the bus schedule heading to a concert. I was in the lobby of the hotel in New York, thinking I was extra early because nobody else was around. They were all on the bus, waiting for me! Or the time I forgot my music and realized it on the bus halfway to Pomona. That’s another story…

Has the LACO audience changed during the past few decades? We are playing more new music, and I think our audience has come a long way in accepting and enjoying that aspect of programming.  New commissions, Meet the Music, and a greater scope in both education and contacts with the musical world at large have contributed to a heightened awareness in general (not to mention new challenges to the orchestra and its director).

As one of the most-established musicians on the LACO stage, what advice would you give musicians just starting out with LACO? I think we all know that one must be on one’s toes and well-prepared to step on stage with this orchestra, but the rewards are beyond description as long as those needs are met.

You’re a faculty member at CSUN and have taught at many other schools, including USC and UCLA. What advice do you give your students and aspiring musicians?
I have always felt that my job is to bring out the best in each student, and it is up to each individual to discover what kind of life in music to aspire to. I try to forward information to my students about opportunities which may come their way. 

You’ve performed on the soundtracks of hundreds of movies. Which stand out as your favorite scores? Which stand out as your favorite movies?  Hard to say! Historically speaking, Somewhere in Time, The Little Mermaid, Avatar; and the soon-to-be-released Tomorrowland, with score by Michael Giacchino. Working with composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Barry, Andre Desplat, Giacchino, and others has been a great experience.

What’s on your bucket list? I’m always trying to push the boundaries, reach out to audiences and fellow musicians, and spread the flow of music everywhere.

What’s one thing about you that no one would know by looking at you or attending a LACO concert? I spend lots of time with my wife Alexes (married 45 years), son Galen, and granddaughter Sierra, as well as being the Pied Piper of our neighborhood, because of the doggie treats I always have for our two guys (Snookie and Frankie) and all their canine friends. I also have arranged a lot of music for chamber music groups and also flute orchestras (Song of the Angels, Ensemble 10, etc.), with which I perform frequently as soloist. I’m also an improviser, and play as much jazz and Latin jazz music as possible. I like to jog with the dogs as well!

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discovering mozart AKA “Oh you Arch-Donkey”

Thursday’s LACO Discover performance at Ambassador auditorium in Pasadena was unlike any other I’ve been to. When I arrived I plopped down in my seat and mentally prepared myself to hear some combination of a 20-30 minute classical composition paired with a bizarre/jangly modern piece before intermission. As usual the orchestra all came out but then the lights suddenly went dim, almost like a guest rock band was going to come out. There was a scuffle of movement in the dark. A spot light finally lit up a small part of the stage revealing two men in black shirts and pants sitting at an ornate wooden table with silver goblets in front of them.

read more →They began to perform a skit! One of the men played Mozart and the other was Mozart’s composer “friend” Salieri. As Mozart explained the unusual origin of his Requiem to Salieri, I couldn’t believe this was really happening. Salieri then secretly “poisons” Mozart’s goblet and the orchestra and a full choir began to play a Mozart composition as the “poison” takes effect. Salieri leaves the “dying” Mozart on the wooden table as the orchestra and choir really get going. As a huge fan of unexpected theatrics I was overjoyed and couldn’t believe how long this was going on for. The Mozart actor stayed “dead” on the table for awhile but sadly the music ended and the lights came back on. Conductor Jeffery Kahane appeared and explained that the skit was actually part of a play by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. JK went on and began a fascinating lecture that explained some of the history, tragedy and plain wackiness associated with Mozart’s Requiem. Among my favorite facts: Mozart wrote the majority of the Requiem in just five weeks! It was unfinished but brilliant. Kind of reminds me of procrastinating in college…except in this case Mozart died and I passed my classes with flying colors. #humblebrag

  • After parts of Mozart’s Requiem were called into question Beethoven responded by calling Mozart out with this quote: “Oh you Arch-Donkey!”
  • One movement in Requiem is called “Tuba Mirum” (which is actually kind of funny, more on this later) BUT at the time of the writing the tuba, the hilarious instrument we all know and love today, did not exist and tuba meant trumpet at the time.
  • Mozart only used the trombone, another (arguably) hilarious instrument, during parts he considered sacred and holy.
  • Finally, here’s a wonderful quote JK shared. It’s Mozart from a letter to his father about his feelings on death: “I never lie down at night without thinking that (young as I am) I may be no more before the next morning dawns. And yet not one of all those who know me can say that I ever was morose or melancholy in my intercourse with them. I daily thank my Creator for such a happy frame of mind, and wish from my heart that every one of my fellow-creatures may enjoy the same.”

After an intermission, the actual performance of Mozart’s Requiem began. As I mentioned early, there were an impressive array of performers along with JK and the Orchestra. There was also a huge choir and four solo vocalists. My favorite soloist was probably Aubrey Allicock because of his performance on a movement I mentioned earlier “Tuba Mirum”. The beginning of the movement has Allicock in a super deep voice singing: “Tubaaaaaaaaaaa”. It sounded like a deep ballad to the (arguably) silly looking musical instrument, which made me happy. The actual translation of that part according to the program notes are “The trumpet scattering its wondrous sound throughout the sepulchral regions”. As I mentioned early, Mozart found the trombone to be sacred so perhaps he also really loves trumpets. Or maybe he was terrified of them because it seems like most of this piece is a reference to Judgment day? Yikes.

As a whole Mozart’s Requiem is one my favorite pieces of music that LACO has played in the almost 3 seasons I’ve seen. It was cool to have the evening just focused on the one piece of music. And the sound of Requiem is so epic and captivating. This is in large part thanks to the vast array of vocals from the soloists and choir. It almost feels like the darkest Christmas carol ever which I mean as a high compliment.

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mozart’s final masterpiece

The Discover Concerts are always such a joy for a person like me. I’m the kind of person who enjoys something even more when I know the intricate details about it. I’m anticipating this particular Discover Concert because I know there are lots of details to cover. On Thursday, LACO will be performing Mozart’s Requiem. Since it’s a choral piece, LACO will be joining forces with the Los Angeles Master Chorale (and their artistic director, Grant Gershon). The piece will feature the magnificent solo voices of Alison King (soprano), Emily Fons (alto), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Aubrey Allicock (bass). But that’s not all; two other guests, actors John Sloan and JD Cullum will have very important roles to play. They will be the embodiment of our composer, Mozart, and his imagined antagonist, Antonio Salieri. I don’t know exactly how the evening will be structured, but the possibilities are very exciting!

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Mozart’s death in December of 1791 cut short a very productive life. Just shy of his 36th birthday, Mozart had written somewhere around 600 works including 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos and nearly two-dozen string quartets. The composer’s last years were, at times, extremely productive. In the summer of 1788, he completed his three final symphonies in less than two months. He wrote operas including Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute. And in his last year, Mozart received an anonymous commission for a Requiem mass. This final piece, however, was left incomplete at his death.

The Requiem was commissioned anonymously by a man named Count Franz Walsegg, who wished to commemorate his wife’s death. The whole affair was shrouded in mystery. Walsegg sent a mysterious emissary to make a deal with Mozart: the anonymous benefactor would pay half of his generous fee up front, and pay Mozart the other half when the work was completed. We think that Walsegg used the emissary probably because he wanted to pass the work off as one of his own. He was something of an amateur composer and a piece like this would have made him look very talented, indeed! Mozart was devoted to the completion of the work, and desperate for the second payment (the Mozarts were chronically in financial straits), but his health did not cooperate. He suffered with an illness in September, but continued to work. In late November, he became too sick to continue. After ailing for two weeks, Mozart died on December 5th.

Mozart had completed the opening movement of the work, the Requiem aeternam. He had written out the vocal parts of the Kyrie, but left just sketches for the orchestral parts. The Sequence and Offertory were in a similar condition, although he composed the Sequence only as far as the eighth measure of the Lacrimosa. The rest of the movements—Sanctus, Benedictus, Hosanna, Agnus Dei—were not composed. This left Mozart’s wife, Constanze, in a bit of a bind. Without Walsegg’s second payment, Constanze struggled to support herself and her children. Turning to different composers to complete the unfinished work, Constanze found only one man who would agree to the subterfuge of passing it off as Mozart’s work. Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart’s long-time assistant, completed the work in 1792.

Süssmayr did an admirable job, especially for his skill level, but some critics have mentioned its problems, among them, lackluster musical ideas and errors in harmony. But over the years, listeners have become used to it, accepting it as Mozart’s final masterpiece. Mozart’s incomplete score seems to have provided more than enough raw material for Süssmayr to put together something worthwhile, but there were still some nagging doubts. Could it have been done differently, maybe even better? What if we had just a little bit more information? These thoughts lingered for more than a hundred and seventy years. But then there was a break in the case.

In the 1960s, a sketch for an Amen fugue was discovered among Mozart’s papers. Many musicologists believe that Mozart meant for this piece to be included in the Requiem after the Lacrimosa. Robert D. Levin, an American musicologist and pianist, is one of a handful of people who attempted new completions of Mozart’s Requiem in the twentieth century. Levin’s version—the one LACO will be playing this week—retains Süssmayr’s basic structure, but addresses some of the problematic aspects of style and orchestration in Süssmayr’s version. Perhaps the most important change is the reworking of the Lacrimosa to accommodate Levin’s Amen fugue, which was written from the sketch. Levin, an expert on Mozart’s work, has completed a number of fragments Mozart left unfinished, as well as some incomplete cantata movements by Bach.

The first few bars of the Lacrimosa, which are the only bars of that movement Mozart completed, are easily some of the most achingly beautiful in all of music. I know them well because I have sung them many times. As a singer who spent many, many hours in choirs, I have sung both Süssmayr’s version of the Requiem and Levin’s completion. I was first introduced to Levin’s version when I was in college, and I was struck by its boldness and its beauty. The Amen fugue is not an easy piece, but it’s absolutely breathtaking and exciting. I am delighted to experience this work again in LACO’s Discover Concert. The combination of LACO, the LA Master Chorale, the soloists, the actors, and of course, our beloved Jeffrey Kahane, will make this Discover Concert one of our best yet. I, for one, will not miss it.

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