in: News & Features

October 9, 2015

Grand Partaking of Mozart a Brilliant Solitaire

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hornwWith his Gran Partita, or Serenade for 13 winds (1781, K.361/370a), Mozart elevated a form from background music to high art. Throughout the seven movements it reaches near-symphonic proportions, revealing the breadth of the master’s talents. As the work is expensive to program for chamber groups, it is rarely presented, and never before in Boston, as far as we know, on instruments of Mozart’s time.

Grand Harmonie brings vibrant, historically informed period-instrument performances of Classical and Romantic music to audiences across the Northeast. The group was founded in 2012 by players interested in exploring the repertory of harmonie bands of the 18th century, and the ensemble scope includes harmoniemusik, salon concerts, mixed chamber music, full symphony orchestra, and both concert and fully staged opera.

Gran Partita will constitute the single work in the opening concerts of the ensemble’s fourth season: Friday October 16th at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge; and Saturday October 17th at Memorial Church, Harvard. BMInt recently communicated with Yoni Kahn, the group’s unnaturally masterful exponent of valveless horns.

FLE: The Gran Partita, aka Serenade for 13 wind instruments, aka Serenade for 12 wind stands at the pinnacle of Mozart’s writing for winds. According to your press release, the piece transcends the Muzaky qualities of Mozart’s other serenades. How so?

YK: There is a misconception that anything by Mozart with the title Serenade, Divertimento and the like must be background music. In fact, other pieces, like the Serenade in C-Minor K.388 have the formal weight and gravitas of a symphony. Serenade just refers to the multimovement structure with a couple of minuets, an adagio, a set of variations, and so on. The fact that each of the movements is long enough to allow Mozart to explore the color combinations of this diverse group of instruments, rather than short enough to entertain between dinner courses, places the Gran Partita squarely in the realm of concert music.

Mozart thought highly enough of the work to borrow movements for other chamber works, including most famously a flute quartet. Yet it is so idiosyncratically written for each instrument that this is almost a travesty.

True, but he was a master of writing idiomatically for every instrument! The movements he did adapt were done so deftly that they stand on their own without reference to the Gran Partita. I know this from personal experience—by a quirk of my music education, I first encountered the flute quartet K. 285b before the Gran Partita, and the variation movement seemed so perfectly written for the flute and strings. I think that Mozart’s melodic material often works well on multiple instruments (in a suitable key, of course), but it is through the inner voices and accompanimental figures that his genius is most apparent.

I’ve heard the Berlin Philharmonic Winds do this at the Salzburg Mozarteum without a conductor and the winds of the BSO do it under the rigid baton of Erich Leinsdorf. Can you guess which performance I liked better?

I think “rigid” says it all. Playing without a conductor affords a certain freedom in performance, giving players the opportunity to take liberties with tempo and figuration as the mood strikes them, while simultaneously forcing the supporting players to listen even more intently. Of course, a conducted performance need not be rigid in any sense, but there is certainly something more organic in letting the music be led from within rather than without. And of course, the premiere of the piece was almost certainly unconducted.

You will not have a conductor, but oboes, flutes and clarinetists tend to wave their sticks like batons in chamber music. What’s a poor horn player to do when he feels like asserting himself?

The kind of “conducting” which happens in a large chamber performance has less to do with the ictus of a baton, and much more to do with a shared sense of tempo and rhythm. For wind players especially, breathing together is key. A horn player (or any wind player) can give a crystal-clear cue with a well-placed breath, nearly silent and with barely any body movement. We hope that the experience we gain from this concert will help us put on full orchestra concerts led from the violin or the piano, as was 18th-century practice, rather than the podium.

Other than piquancy, what does the period nature of your instruments add? Is the natural horn the most different-sounding? What should we listen for in the other instruments?

First and foremost, the instruments we’ll be performing on are the instruments Mozart was writing for, so the music just feels at home on them. The piquancy you mention is largely a heterogeneity of sound which was very much in vogue in the Classical and early Romantic periods (different is good), as contrasted with the ideal of homogeneity of sound in a modern orchestra (different is bad). In particular, the sound of a horn crooked in B-flat basso (an octave and a whole step below middle C) is unlike anything possible on a modern horn—you can’t even reach that length of tubing with all the valves pushed down. Some of the most striking moments occur in the minor variation of the theme and variations movement, where sliding clarinet and basset horn lines clearly showcase crossfingerings. Each note has a totally different tone quality, and that’s the whole point. But there are many moments where a simple sustained major triad just comes to life on period instruments, activating all the overtones of the whole ensemble. The function of the natural horns in the Gran Partita is almost entirely as inner voices, but with key harmonic roles (pairs of horns pitched in tonic and dominant) that contribute a richness to tutti chords.

Your literature says that this piece constitutes an entire program, yet it usually comes in at 50 minutes or so. Are you planning leisurely tempi?

Concert length has changed drastically over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, concerts were often rambling affairs of 3-4 hours consisting of single movements drawn from dozens of pieces. In the spirit of historically informed rather than historically accurate, Grand Harmonie’s programming seeks to make a solid musical argument using period instruments, and we’re not concerned with filling a particular time slot. We did this last season with our “Deconstructed” concerts, where wind and string bands in the first half joined forces for a symphony in the second half. In the case of this upcoming program, pairing the Gran Partita with another chamber work would invite comparisons which I’m not sure would be helpful. No other work shares its unique instrumentation. By letting it stand alone, we can give a spoken introduction with some musical signposts, and let the piece take the audience on a journey by its own merits.

Is this concert something you’ve contemplated since the beginning of your band?

The impetus for founding Grand Harmonie came largely from a workshop on this piece run by Aston Magna in the summer of 2012. We knew that this was a piece we wanted to perform, but we also knew that a successful performance of such a large work would require time for the ensemble to gel. After three full seasons of performing together as a wind section, we’re ready. We are indebted to the Harvard Musical Association for awarding us a George Henschel grant which allowed us to produce this program.

Yoni Kahn with flared plumbing.

Yoni Kahn with flared plumbing.

You will be performing in two very different rooms: St. Peters in Cambridge on Friday the 16th and at Memorial Church on the following Sunday. What are the differences in the acoustics of the two spaces, and will that affect your playing?

St. Peter’s is smaller and more intimate, but the large amount of wood in the sanctuary gives both a resonance and a wonderful clarity. We performed Mozart’s piano quintet there last season and even the smallest nuances of the fortepiano were clearly audible. Memorial Church is a favorite of Grand Harmonie—many of our members have performed there with the Harvard University Choir in large Baroque and early Classical programs. It’s larger, so it’s easier to envelop the audience in a wash of sound, which happens so often in the introduction to the first movement. But I expect we’ll need to pay more attention to projecting nuances of articulation, and maybe adjust some tempos downward.

Are you commissioning any new music for old instruments?

That’s a really interesting direction, but not one which Grand Harmonie is exploring. As we see it, there is enough repertory out there, especially from the 19th century, that rarely or never gets performed on period instruments, and we have our hands full already trying to program it all!

Gunther Schuller once told me that it’s impossible to play a wrong note on a natural horn, meaning that if the note’s not in the harmonic series for a particular horn, it won’t sound. Do you agree?

Playing B-flat basso horn sometimes feels like driving an 18-wheeler on a Nascar track. But much of the fun of performing on natural horn is the intense concentration required to get the horn to sound the notes you want it to. On the other hand, if you play the wrong harmonic of a B-flat major triad on top of an F-major chord, disaster ensues.

Friday October 16 at 7:30pm at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 838 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge
Saturday October 17 at 7:30pm at Memorial Church, 1 Harvard Yard, Cambridge.

Tickets ranging $12-$30 may be purchased online here.

The October 17th concert is available on YouTube here.

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