March 25, 2013
On January 16th 2013 around 8:36pm, the walls of the Roy Thompson Hall were bustling under the sweet vibrations of one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s greatest symphonies: Symphony No. 40 (K. 550) in G Minor, under the conduction of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s very own Music Director, Peter Oundjian.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27th, 1756 in Salzberg, Austria. He was a classical composer from the 18th century that was famous for writing concertos, chamber music, orchestra pieces, operas, chorals, vocal solos, and symphonies. His father Leopold taught him music at a very early. By the age of 5, Mozart began composing. By 10 he created his first symphony and by 14 he had written his first opera. He had become a great admirer of Franz Joseph Haydn’s music, and in 1781 (age 25), he moved to Vienna to become a full-time composer and music teacher. In 1782 he married Constanze Weber, who in turn encouraged him to become a court musician in order to make money. In 1785 Mozart became involved in Freemasonry, which greatly affected his later works of art. Furthermore, in 1787 he took a job as a private musician for the emperor of Austria.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (K. 550) was composed in Vienna for July 25th 1788. It was the second last symphony that Mozart composed, and is considered to be one of Mozart’s finest masterpieces. The symphony is in the uncommon key of G minor, which ultimately promotes a sense of urgency and drama (Sadie 81). There have been several interpretations of moods and meanings behind the symphony. Charles Rosen, an American pianist and writer, describes the symphony as expressing “passion, violence, grief...[a] supreme expression of suffering and terror” (Sadie 85). Alfred Einstein, a German-American musicologist, sees it as “a fatalistic piece of chamber music” (Brown 419). Robert Schumann, a German composer, believes it models Hellenic grace (Sadie 85), whereas Jack Westrup, and English musicologist, believes it’s in the spirit of opera buffa (Brown 419).
The 18th century notion was that composers wouldn’t compose intense symphonies without some sort of professional goal in mind. As a result, there have been many speculations revolving around the piece’s written occasion. Some romantics believe there was an inner compulsion, and attempt to link the symphony to his death and hardships. Others have argued that musicians have created disheartening pieces during euphoric moments in their lives and vice versa. A letter from June of 1788 depicts a stressed Mozart begging for his friend and Freemason brother, Michael Puchberg, to visit. Many have linked the contents described in this despairing letter to be the motives behind the symphony:
“Please. Come and see me. I am still at home. In ten days I’ve gotten through more work than I would have in two months in my former quarters, and if I were not so often prey to dark thoughts, which I manage to dispel with huge difficulty, things would go better...I won’t take any more of your time with my going on. I’ll bring these words to a stop so hope can commence” (Henry 82).
The same letter speaks of plans to create a series of concerts, however there is no evidence of any of these concerts existing (Sadie 80). In the end, there is no precise way of knowing how influential these events were in creating the 40th symphony.
There is also a notion that Mozart never got to hear his final three symphonies. This however is most likely false. There was a tour in 1789 that covered Leipzig, Berlin, the Prussian capital, and Dresden, with Leipzig being sure to have played at least one of the last three symphonies. Georges des Saint-Foix, author of Symphonies of Mozart, highly believes that the 40th symphony was played during this tour, for critical reviews describe certain passages that are very similar to passages found in the G minor symphony (Saint-Foix 107).
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 is such an important staple in Western music. Neil Zaslaw, author of Mozart’s Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice, Reception, states that “In addition to being a pillar of the repertory and one of the most flawless exemplars of the classical style, the G minor symphony is a key work to understanding the link between musical classicism and musical romanticism” (Zaslaw 437). As a result, it has received the most criticism, commentaries, and analyses from critics and musicologists. François-Joseph Fétis, a Belgian musicologist and critic, summed up his interpretations of the G minor symphony on May 11th, 1828 for his new Revue Musicale as follows:
‘Although Mozart in this symphony has not been lavished in his orchestral demands, although those mass effects that astonish and transport us in the Beethoven symphonies will not be found here, the inventive fire burning in this work, the passionate and energetic tones there poured out, the melancholy hue which prevails, make it one of the very finest productions of the human mind.’ (Saint-Foix 141-142).
A lot of commentaries have stemmed from the open-endedness of interpretation, which was partly derived from the sudden passing of Mozart in 1791. Many articles reflect upon the musical potentials that might have been, had Mozart not passed so soon: “The G minor symphony is...perhaps even a mournful hint at what Mozart might have composed had he lived a normal lifespan” (Zaslaw 437).
The concert took place at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall (60 Simcoe St.). The hall was established in the fall of 1982. In 2002 it underwent a $24 million Acoustical Enhancement. The hall can seat 2,630 people. The symphony was performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and featured two players: Teng Li, the principal viola player, and Jonathan Crow, a violin player from British Columbia. Peter Oundjian was the featured conductor. He is the Music Director of the TSO and is responsible for attracting new audiences through annual celebrations of music and the New Creations Festival. He has released five recordings under the tsoLIVE record label, and has received a Gold Medal award for Most Distinguished Student and the Stoutzker Prize for Excellence in violin playing.
I had several main focuses to explore when watching the concert, the first being orchestration. Mozart originally scored his 40th Symphony for one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns (one in G, another in Bb), and strings (cello & basses). He later replaced the two oboes with two clarinets, while two oboes were added with modified parts. There were no trumpets or drums. (Saint-Foix 129-130). The TSO had very similar orchestration with one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two clarinets, three upright basses, five cellos, six violas, and 18 violins. There were several oboe solos but the majority of soloing was done by the clarinet. The oboe was mostly prominent in duets with the flute and horns.
The TSO started the symphony off much softer than the previous versions I had listened to. The tempo was slower as well. The researched pieces were around 126 bmp, while the TSO was around 100bmp. This tempo change added a bounce to the piece, and ended up evoking more of a happy ambiance rather than the typical aggressive tendencies that the piece is linked to. The dynamics fluxuated more than the researched versions, causing more flow and overall movement into the piece, but ultimately the dynamics fed into the already unusual happy ambiance. The musicians were very attentive to the conductor, which allowed for very stark contrasts between piano and forte. The conducting was easy to follow and wasn’t very different from any of the conducting methods I’ve worked with. However, there were some parts where Oundjan appeared to be dancing while conducting. I found the musicians didn’t reply Oundjan for conducting cues, but rather dynamic contrasts and tempo pulls. There was one moment in movement four that almost sounded playful. It wasn’t nearly as aggressive as other researched versions.
One of my main concerns was the sound quality. I had a seat over the stage on the far left. For the most part the sound was even. The flutes were audible even though I was across the stage from them. Around movement three the French horns became over powering, and by movement four they were all I could here. It also seemed to be lacking a bottom in terms of bass, when compared to other researched versions, but that could have been due to where I was sitting.
Overall I found this version of Mozart’s Symphony disappointing. It has a different mood from what I had been accustomed to hearing in my research. It conveyed a happier emotion that was full of bounce, and lacked the aggression and intensity of other recordings, to which I had come to expect. It was slower than what I was used to and much softer dynamically. I also feel that it lacked the edginess I desired, which is ironic, because I was on the edge of the stage...literally.
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