Tag Archives: Mozart

Youth Takes Center Stage at PSO’s Final Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 16, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

There’s an adage that used to appear regularly on office walls, to the effect that “Youth and skill are no match for old age and treachery.”
Sometimes youth and skill do win out, however, an example being last night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marcelo Lehninger, 31, and featuring violinist Alexi Kenney, 23.

It’s too bad that Lehninger is already spoken for (by the Grand Rapids Symphony) or the PSO’s search for a music director would be over. He elicited the best performances from individuals, and the orchestra as a whole, of any conductor I have heard in recent years. while Kenney’s performance of that old chestnut, the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra (Op. 26) made it sound better than it is.

Kenny has superb technique, but even more important a melodic gift that was perfectly suited to the Bruch. His dynamics have a complete range, but are understated, a characteristic that Lehninger’s conducting compensated for perfectly.

The concerto was so well played that it moved the capacity audience to a loud and long-lasting standing ovation…unfortunately, since that led to a solo encore. No,no, no..

You have just created the ideal mood intended by a great composer and you have to spoil it with a gnarly etude (Piazzola Tango Etude No. 3) that can’t compare musically and indicates only that the artist is showing off? For shame. This new post-concerto custom needs a holly stake driven through its heart.

The program began with a light hearted romp through Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” marred only by a pedantic program note that insisted on calling the composer “Amadè.” I’m sorry if Wolfgang never used the name Amadeus, but that’s what he will be called, now and forever, amen.

A  primary characteristic of youth made the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74, an experience to remember: daring.

At the very beginning, Lehninger called out individual solo voices in a way I have never heard before, then combined them into a musical shape like dots in a pointillist painting. The fermatas were long, some of the sounds almost inaudible, but always portentous.

The drums in the opening movement were the most powerful since the French Revolution, and the march a terrifying epitome of fascism. Lehninger also left no doubt that the final movement, which just peters out, is a suicide note.

The Sixth is both tragic and pathetic, but the performance Tuesday night was also hopeful, showing that no matter how familiar a work is, it can always be heard and performed in new, but nevertheless effective, ways by coming generations.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Mozart and Gershwin at the Franco Center

Kevin Ayesh, Piano
Franco Center, Lewiston

April 19, 2017

by Christopher Hyde

On Friday night I took my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, to hear Kevin Ayesh, in the penultimate concert of the Franco Center’s 2016-2017 piano series.

It was a good choice. Jordan is beginning to study piano seriously and Dr. Ayesh is a noted teacher and performer whose approach is musical rather than virtuosic. In my experience, Lisztian displays often do more to discourage budding musicians than to inspire them.
Jordan also happens to love the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was the final work on the scheduled program. (The encore was Dame Myra Hess’ transcription of the Bach “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”)

Friday’s night’s performance marked the first time I had heard the solo piano score, written by Gershwin himself, and I liked it better than any of the versions orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, always excepting the opening clarinet glissando, which Ayesh imitated well on the piano.

Gershwin himself was a pianist and the piano must have been what he heard in the railroad noises that inspired the work. It does feel closer to the spirit of the composition, and it seems to hold together better than the concerto-with-orchestra that Leonard Bernstein deplored as fragmented.

Ayesh is as much at home in Mozart as in Gershwin, opening the program with a remarkable performance of the Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311.  It seemed an almost complete realization of the composer’s intentions in  dynamic range, tempo and clear delineation of voices.

His inherently thoughtful approach was not as useful in four works by Chopin that concluded the first half of the program. The opening Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, was the most successful, bringing out the unusual amount of drama in the piece.

The well-known melody of the Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, was a bit idiosyncratic, but what is a pianist to do after a few centuries of repetition? I once asked a famous virtuoso how he maintained his feeling for a composition after a few hundred performances . He replied “fake it.”

I don’t have enough Polish blood to enjoy the mazurkas as I should, and the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, which has become display rather than music, needs more artillery power than thought.

However, I very much enjoyed Ayesh’s interpretation of the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, especially his emphasis on the triplets in the central section, and the fermata before the final “A” in that beautiful arpeggiated chord.

The Impromptu No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 34 of Gabriel Fauré came as a revelation, full of sparkling French fireworks and a wistful middle theme that recurs in the coda. Very appropriate for the Franco Center.

And Jordan got to meet the artist at the regular champagne reception after the concert.

The final recital of the series will be on June 9, with pianist Tamara Poddubnaya and Music Without Borders Grand Prix winner Vassily Panteleev.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Philharmonia Quartett, Berlin

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Hannaford Hall, USM
March 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

An encore by a string quartet! The first I have heard in many years of listening to chamber music, and not a lollipop either, but the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6.

The occasion was the conclusion of a Sunday afternoon concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, one of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles, under the auspices of Portland Ovations.

The quartet had just concluded the Beethoven No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, to a standing ovation, when one of the members said something to the effect of : “Well, you liked that, so we’ll give you some more.”

I had been wracking my brains for what element  makes the quartet so special —balance, individualization of parts, resonance, microtone precision, passion, dynamics, what some have called “smoothness,” etc. etc., without coming to any obvious conclusion.

After the encore, I saw them entering the elevator, chatting like a group of high school students on a senior trip, and what had been under my nose during the encore, suddenly came to mind: They actually love what they’re doing. It’s what holds them together. I had seen that during the encore, but their cohesiveness was emphasized by their obvious comradery off stage.

The program itself was fascinating, beginning with a Mozart quartet, No. 8 in F Major (KV.168), that was light and lively, the composer making fun of convention with a fugue whose theme was so rapid that it defied the rules of counterpoint.

My favorite, however, was the late Shostakovich No. 15 in E-flat Minor (Op 144). There were no flies in Hannaford Hall, so I couldn’t check the validity of the composer’s dictum that the first movement should be so boring that it would make flies drop dead.

I found it fascinating, an exploration of what could be accomplished with the fewest possible notes, played sostenuto within a severely limited range of pitches. It was extremely effective in a macabre sort of way and lent itself to all sorts of Shostakovian transformations, from heart-rending shrieks to summer insects, to one of his famous sardonic waltzes, to, finally, a dirge to the tune of Happy Birthday.
One would have thought it another poke in the eye to Stalin, except that the dictator had already been dead 20 years when it was written. I think Shostakovich missed him.

I wasn’t as happy with the late Beethoven, also a No. 15, but in A Minor (Op. 132). Not because of its execution, which was well-nigh perfect, but because of my blind spot for these revered productions.

The “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode” (Note the comma. The movement is in the Lydian mode, not the convalescent.) goes on forever. One can imagine God saying: “Enough, Ludwig, I get the message.”

The final movement is livelier, but its false cadences are enough to drive one mad. Sorry. Mea culpa. I really have come to like the Grosse Fugue.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Pianist Excels at Franco Center Recital

Franco Center Piano Series
Christopher Staknys
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

At the advanced age of 20, pianist Christopher Staknys has already performed three times at the popular piano series of the Franco Center in Lewiston. The first time, at the age of ten, he had just broken his right arm and played his own composition for the left hand alone.

Probably just a coincidence, but the young pianist’s most successful rendition on Friday evening was the Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, of Alexander Scriabin, best known for his Nocturne for the left hand.

Scriabin’s early piano works are heavily influenced by Chopin, but more virtuosic. The sonata, like those of Chopin, requires a master to bring out the internal voices amidst a Russian snowstorm of notes.

Staknys was more than up to the task,  in a well-balanced performance that, in the final presto, seemed like bolts of lightning inside a dark thundercloud.

Staknys, who lives in Falmouth and is now attending Juilliard, may have been nervous at the beginning of the concert, since he attacked the Mozart Sonata No. 8 in A Minor (KV 310) like a falcon dive-bombing a pigeon.

It was fascinating to hear. No one should be able to play that fast and furious without making a single mistake. “No, he can’t possibly negotiate that passage correctly at that speed!” But he does. Miraculous, but unfortunately not Mozart.

The accelerator was slightly less depressed in three waltzes from Chopin’s Opus 34, but they still sounded like Godowsky transcriptions of Strauss. The best was No. 2 in A Minor, which demands some thoughtful melancholy.

During the first half of the program, the young pianist was most at home in “Ondine,” from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” with its sparkling sprays of water flicked off by the nymph of the title, who is trying to get the poet to come with her to her palace under the lake.
A little more contrast of moods, from playful through Romantic to pouting (when the poet refuses her), would have been ideal, but the entire portrait was brilliant and technically flawless.

The second half began with two original preludes, dedicated to the pianist’s mother. They were reminiscent of Scriabin as well in their tonal ambiguity, if not in their playfulness.

A Schubert Allegretto in A-flat Major, No. 6 of Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 (D. 780), demonstrated what Staknys could do with a more relaxed and thoughtful approach. It was gorgeous, especially the certainty of voices in the ever-modulating chords.

The encore was a set of improvisations on “Over the Rainbow,” with a reference to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” appropriate to Inauguration Day. The occasion may have influenced attendance, but there should have been many more in the hall. A fine concert, crepes and wine at intermission and champagne and conversation with the artist afterward. What could be better than that?

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A New Star in the Bowdoin Festival Heavens

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
July 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Gabriela Lena Frank, whose “Tres Homenajes, Compadrazgo,” was performed Friday night at the Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, may be our new Bartok.

The work in question, three tributes to the Latin American spirit of brotherly love, inspired by ethnic Peruvian music, is a masterpiece. While it stems from the ethnomusicology of the composer, the folk motifs and rhythms are the starting point for inspired music in a distinctive and universal classical style. It is what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango, but carried to an even higher level and capable of being appreciated across cultural divides.

Its rapid, driving rhythms and abrupt changes of pitch and volume are a challenge for any group, but the Ying Quartet, and pianist Tao Lin, conquered its awesome chasms like mountain goats (if you’ll pardon the analogy.).

The three movements depict the windswept northern plains of Peru, a desolate island in Lake Titicaca and T’inku, a ritual combat between village heroes, now symbolic but previously a matter of life and death. (Both victor and vanquished share in the good harvest resulting from the conflict.)

While the composer’s images may have been her inspiration, listeners are free to imagine what they will. There are no overt references or musical imagery. The slow second movement, to me, would make a fantastic score for Pablo Neruda’s great poem about Machu Picchu.

Frank is a composer in residence at this year’s festival. They are fortunate indeed to have her.

If I were not exclaiming over Frank’s work, I would have begun with Robin Scott, first violinist of the Ying Quartet, who deserves some kind of Iron Man award. He appeared first in a charming rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major (K. 364/320d), with a virtuoso cadenza, then in the extremely difficult Frank work, and finally in Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor (Op. 15).

The Fauré, while not exactly a lollipop, is a rich late-Romantic piece with delicious twilight harmonies and soothing melodies. The slow movement is said to depict an unhappy broken engagement to the daughter of famous singer-composer Pauline Viardot.

The official biography says no to the story, but the evidence is there for anyone with an ear to hear. (Some musicologist must have checked references to Viardot’s scores in the quartet.) In fact, the sweet cheat appears as a spirit in the Allegro Molto, like a fountain of light. Unfortunately Fauré doesn’t know what to do with her and cobbles together an ending with the piano, superbly played by Elinor Freer, as the lone hero.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

DaPonte’s Respighi a Home Run

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
May 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Two out of three ain’t bad. The theme of the DaPonte String Quartet’s most recent series was “Dino’s Hit List,” three of the favorite compositions of quartet violinist Ferdinand Liva. Of course, hit list has another connotation as well.

Before Sunday’s concert, at the Unitarian Universals Church in Brunswick, Liva did not say why he had selected Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, KV 589, a work composed for the King of Prussia, who was an ardent cellist, not a violinist.

The late work, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best. The DaPonte cannot play anything badly, but the writing seemed a little thin at times. It was improved by a fine cello melody during the Larghetto and in the final Allegro assai, a scherzo-like movement which reminded one of what Beethoven did with the traditional minuet.

What followed, however, was truly amazing-—the Quartetto Dorico, Op. 144 of Ottorino Respighi. The Dorian mode corresponds to a scale consisting of the white keys on a piano from “D” to “D”. It has also been called “Russian minor,” and Respighi may have encountered it during his studies in orchestral color with Rimsky Korsakov.

Respighi is best known for his atmospheric landscape portraits, such as “The Pines of Rome,” composed around the same time as the Quartetto. He was a member of string quartets and the Op. 144 uses his knowledge to great effect. The writing is orchestral, and the DaPonte was able to express it perfectly, raising the volume a notch or two without pushing the limits of the instruments.

The initial theme, played in unison, appears repeatedly, in transformation after transformation, ending in a triumphant fugue. In between, the feeling is pantheistic, like the music of Janacek, impressionistic, like Ravel or his own “Pines of Rome,” and sometimes archaic, like his “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But the quartet is by no means a pastiche. It holds together beautifully.

Respighi, a genius who deserves to be better known, seems to have devised a “third way” of advancing the art of composition without resorting to atonality or serialism. The quartet is full of magical effects; at one point the violin enters with a high-pitched bird whistle over a rustle like wind in trees, with absolutely startling clarity.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there came a masterful account of the Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.

The other day, I was entranced by what Beethoven could do with the “V for Victory” motif of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Quartet shows what genius can do with a simple interval, also stated at the very beginning.

As just one example, the interval is treated as a heavily accented iamb on the first violin, serving as an accompaniment to the melody, and it is ravishing. The Russian folk song in the Allegretto, with its off-kilter rhythms, has been immortalized, and the quick march of the presto somehow evolves into a galloping horse.

The playing was spectacular and led to a rare standing ovation for the final concert of five throughout central Maine.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Was Mozart Executed?

With his permission, I am posting DaPonte String Quartet cellist Myles Jordan’s essay on the controversy surrounding Mozart’s death. Myles wants me to point out that this is a work in progress, that he is still doing research, and that the final version will include references. Even in this preliminary form, it makes sense to me.

Peter Gay writes in his popular Mozart biography that “There is no evidence Mozart was aware of the French revolution.” This statement reflects a historical record examined in detail many times. There is, of course, limited evidence belonging to sources independent of “the official historical record” that Leopold Ranke, inventor of modern historiography, designed to allow victors to write history. Records of Masonic activities placing Mozart to the left of Rousseau, musical topoi reflected in several works — Die Zauberflöte, the string quartets, especially KV 464, collaborations with Beaumarchais, three works written for Benjamin Franklin’s harmonium, a piano concerto beginning like La Marseillaise — even without the documented insubordinate behavior toward both ecclesiastical and State authorities the list is extensive. It is quite certain Mozart would today be called a radical of the left. He was a feminist — extremely rare for that time — a revolutionary sympathizer and, as an itinerant musician, permitted to travel much more freely in Europe than most people of his class. He was certainly a very politically aware and active man; why, then, should the historical record be completely silent about his attitude toward the events of 1789?

Mozart was likely of use to the Masonic movement as a courier. Legend places him more than once at the Café Procope in Paris (still standing), the informant-infested favorite watering-hole of Jefferson, Franklin, and Beaumarchais (whose own activities as a Crown secret agent operating on behalf of American revolutionary efforts were undertaken under the alias Roderique Hortalez). By 1790 Mozart may have become a dangerous courtier in the eyes of the Emperor, who was Marie Antoinette’s brother, and brought under scrutiny. The task of ascertaining if and how his politics, contacts, and activities posed any threat to the State would have been assigned to Mozart’s immediate superior at Court, the implicitly-trusted Antonio Salieri. There is evidence the courts of France and Austria occasionally shared intelligence.

How did Mozart die? Trichinosis, rheumatic fever and alcoholism are all suspected today; their symptoms match those described by eyewitnesses. The effects of arsenic trioxide poisoning that are also consistent with Mozart’s symptoms are rare; the old Salieri-poisoned-Mozart story is usually ruled out as a conspiracy theory because, as the senior, better-paid court composer, Salieri had no motive to kill him. (Nor was Salieri — teacher of Liszt, Beethoven, Czerny, Moscheles, and Schubert — anything like the mediocrity he is believed to be today.) Yet this story is worth another look, on other grounds.

On one hand, blame for Mozart’s murder would, bluntly, have been an endlessly-protracted public relations nightmare for the House of Habsburg. Immediately after Mozart’s death a celebration of his life and work for which “more than half the city of Prague turned out” gives some sense how beloved he had become. On the other hand, Mozart’s acceptance of salary from a royal employer whose downfall he plotted was equally unacceptable, and this was neither the age nor place a disloyal employee might be given a pink slip and three weeks’ notice. Were the Emperor to have approved his execution there was ample reason for Court to thoroughly purge the historical record and to disseminate a cover-story. The official story is at odds with several established facts, and its timing coincides with a major offensive taken by the Emperor against foreign and domestic revolutionary elements, chiefly Masonic.

Franz Niemetschek testified in 1798 that Constanze Mozart had related the couple were driving in the Prater in June, 1791 when a perfectly healthy Mozart began to talk of his death, half a year before its occurrence. “I cannot rid myself of the thought that someone has poisoned me with acqua toffana [an odorless, colorless arsenic compound]. It is for myself that I am writing the Requiem. Surely my end is not far off. I have the metallic taste in my mouth.” This conversation followed closely on the arrest of Marie Antoinette at Varennes, an event that understandably put the Emperor on high alert. After Mozart’s death, both the bloating and absence of rigor mortis, consistent with poisoning, fanned the widespread belief, reported in a Berlin musical journal, that he had been executed. The same observations, corroborated years later by son Carl Thomas Mozart, were vigorously refuted by his mother (this particular poison

was a means by which younger wives of older husbands sometimes brought on a welcome widowhood). However, both she and Carl are on record at other moments holding Salieri responsible for Mozart’s death; its timing was also very close to the Emperor’s Declaration of Pillnitz, which alludes in its text to serious warnings about the dangers of Freemasonry in a brief from his chief of secret police.

There was no autopsy, “owing to the body’s stench.” The attending doctor, one of the most respected in Vienna, gave him very poor care according to Constanza, and predicted almost to the hour the time of Mozart’s passing from a “miliary fever” that was certainly not contagious. Constanze, in one of those “alas, spectacular” operatic displays of grief similar to televised demonstrations of spousal mourning at Communist state funerals, threw herself on her husband’s body in order to follow him speedily to the grave. Although she was in no danger there was indeed an “epidemic” of deaths in Vienna from Mozart’s ailment, plausibly indicating a coordinated, wholesale purge of Vienna’s political undesirables.

She did not accompany his body to the graveyard where it was unceremoniously dumped because, it was said, of inclement weather. This does not comport with Vienna’s detailed official meteorological records for that day. She did collect his pension, provided by the Emperor. The official story, which holds that Mozart’s unmarked grave was nothing unusual for the time, begs the question what other artist of similar attainments ever received a similar funeral in Vienna. Haydn, Beethoven, even the impoverished, much less-established Schubert: all were given “honor graves.”

One of Beethoven’s 1823 conversation books shows an exchange where Beethoven is given the recent news that his former teacher, Salieri (d.1825, and by 1823 in early-stage dementia), has just attempted suicide by cutting his own throat and, further, that he has claimed responsibility for poisoning Mozart. This claim is immediately refuted by Salieri’s doctors, who go to extraordinary lengths — writing letters in Italian, etc. — to discredit the old man’s outburst. When Ignaz Moscheles visits him some time later in the asylum, Salieri himself tells Moscheles the rumor is ridiculous.

Salieri’s politics were apparently, like Mozart’s, very liberal at the time of the latter’s death. Late in life he revealed himself as a staunch conservative. His radical opera Le couronnement de Tarare, written in 1790 (the year before Mozart’s death), created the widespread impression that his politics lay much further to the left of their actual position. Considering for the moment the possibility Salieri wrote the work as a State mole in order to gain confidences, it would conceivably have given him access to a circle around the notoriously indiscreet Mozart sufficient to put several people on a purge list.

Salieri, a confidante of the Emperor’s (losing his position at Court immediately at the latter’s death), was not, however, the only Court composer at this time to write an opera at odds with his personal political convictions. Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, written in only eighteen days during the few months between the Prater conversation and his death, celebrates the Roman emperor Titus showing mercy toward subjects who had plotted against him (Tito was written for the coronation of his employer as Holy Roman Emperor). The message could hardly have been more explicit: this is Mozart’s eleventh-hour appeal for mercy.

It did not succeed. The Empress made a disparaging remark about Tito at its Prague premiere, calling it “Una porcheria tedescha” (German swinishness), a barb directed at Mozart — Caterino Mazzolá and Pietro Metastasio, the opera’s librettists, were both Italian — and at German reluctance to cooperate with the Emperor’s counterrevolutionary efforts. Five months after the Prater conversation Mozart’s health plummeted — from apparent full health to death — over fourteen days. Were he in fact poisoned, this sudden deterioration would indicate a second dose or series of doses, perhaps administered by his physician, his wife, or both.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

In each of its 19-year series of benefit concerts for the Walpole Meeting House, the DaPonte String Quartet includes a work written around the time that the meeting house was built—1772. Sunday night’s concert was no exception, beginning with the Mozart String Quartet in A Major K. 464.

The quartet, one of those dedicated to Haydn, has other connections to the New World. It is the first to incorporate Masonic musical symbolism in solidarity with Mozart’s brethren, who included revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin—for whom he composed music for the glass harmonica.

The program notes by DaPonte cellist Myles Jordan make a good case that Mozart may indeed have been poisoned, if not by his musical rival Salieri, then by other agents of the Austrian emperor, terrified of the popular young radical’s influence. (The Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, had just lost her head to similar revolutionaries.) Not coincidentally, the DaPonte’s first winter series of concerts will be entitled “Enemies of the State.”

The quartet itself is long and “durch componiert” (thoroughly composed, perhaps too carefully.) It shows a more self-conscious effort at academic perfection than Mozart usually demonstrates. That said, it was a delight to hear in the fine acoustics of the old meeting house, lit only by flickering candles. Jordan excelled in the cello part, whose pizzicati gave the quartet its nickname of “The Drum.”

The Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Written in 1924, the quartet nevertheless shows premonitions of the horror to come.

Its dance-like rhythms and folkish modes remind one of Smetana, but they are accompanied by strange wisps of sound, at the highest register, barely audible and often sul ponte (on the bridge) that make them seem like floating spirits, menacing or not. The final movement, with its ticking clock that eventually winds down, should be a cliche, but instead remains highly effective.

This is a wonderful work, that the DaPonte has made its own and recorded on a CD that captures the soundscape of the old meeting house.

The program concluded with a rousing performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major Opus 44, No. 1. Its mood swings are those of a young composer who has just married and also lost his beloved sister. It reminded me of the old quote: “I wanted to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept breaking out.”

The quartet eventually transforms itself into a violin concerto, which Ferdinand Liva, Jr. managed with aplomb.