Honey, I Shrunk the Concertos

By Lawrence Toppman

Symphonies, concertos, operas and other genres Mozart mastered all existed before he came along. But he seems to have invented the piano quintet – if inadvertently.

Despite modern stereotypes of him as a naïve music-making machine, he could be a shrewd businessman. By 1785, upper-middle class households were acquiring fortepianos. They wanted to make music with their families or a circle of friends. So he dropped the winds and pared down the strings from six concertos to make them playable by a pianist and string quartet. (Jean-Philippe Collard and Quatuor Muir made a superlative recording of all six.)

Mozart picked concertos 6 through 14, leaving out 7 (written for three pianos), 10 (written for two) and 9 (too difficult). He stopped there, because winds became indispensable to the sound he wanted, and solo parts became too hard for amateurs. He thought of 14 as a game-changer and made it the first entry in a private catalogue of works he kept until he died.

He wrote his father that the original concertos “lie midway between what is too difficult and too easy – they are very brilliant and fall agreeably on the ear.” Talented amateurs could enjoy these reduced versions without being frustrated by technical demands.

Both Mozart and history profited. The new versions introduced his music to a wider public and let potential soloists test “concertos” without having to pull an orchestra together.

More importantly, he kick-started a genre. Luigi Boccherini knocked out 12 piano quintets after Mozart died. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who wrote elaborate cadenzas for four Mozart piano concertos – including 11, 12, and 13, where the composer left no instructions – produced two piano quintets with a double-bass in place of the second violin.

Schubert used that lineup in the Trout Quintet, the first piano quintet masterpiece. After that, the floodgates opened, usually with the original scoring. Schumann, Dvorak, Brahms, Franck, Faure, Bartok, Shostakovich and others explored the form with terrific results.

We virtually never hear Mozart’s shrunken concertos now. The closest things we get are his piano quartets, which omit the second violin. He wrote the first of those two masterpieces about the time he transcribed the last of his concertos. You can hear that G Minor quartet March 10 in a concert at Davidson College, with pianist Phillip Bush leading it, Frank Bridge’s Phantasy Quartet and Brahms’ First Quartet.

Joseph Flummerfelt, founding Spoleto Festival choral conductor, dies at 82

Joseph Flummerfelt, an esteemed choral conductor who helped establish Spoleto Festival USA and who led the Westminster Choir for more than 30 years, died Friday. He was 82. The cause of death was a stroke, according to colleagues close to him. Full article via The Post and Courier

André Previn, Musical Polymath, Has Died At Age 89

André Previn, a celebrated musical polymath, died Thursday morning; he was a composer of Oscar-winning film music, conductor, pianist and music director of major orchestras. His manager, Linda Petrikova, confirmed to NPR that he died at his home in Manhattan.

Previn wrote a tune in the 1950s. In the vernacular of the day, he called it “Like Young.” His Hollywood friend, the great lyricist Ira Gershwin, was critical. “Don’t you know it should be “As Young?” asked Gershwin. Previn loved that story — from his jazz side.

Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former music critic and professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California, says that jazz was just one side of the multitalented artist. “He really seriously distinguished himself in a lot of different fields. He was not one of these people who came in and shook up one field forever and ever,” Page notes.

Previn began his musical life “like young.” Born in Berlin on April 6, 1929, as Andreas Ludwig Priwin, he grew up in Los Angeles. His family fled Germany in 1938 and first moved to Paris, and then New York, before landing in Hollywood. As a wunderkind teenager, he played piano at the Rhapsody Theatre, improvising scores at silent film screenings.

“There was one of those huge silent epics which kept vacillating allegorically between biblical times and the Roaring ’20s, and so I really had to pay attention,” Previn told NPR’s Weekend Edition in 1991. “But I noticed that each time they switched venues, as it were, it would stay there for a while. So we came out of a biblical time and back into people Charlestoning their life away. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m safe for a few minutes.’ And so I started playing ‘Tiger Rag,’ and I heard a commotion in the audience, and the manager was storming down the aisle. And I took a quick look up on the screen — and I was playing ‘Tiger Rag’ to the Crucifixion, which was a bad choice. And I was out on the pavement about three minutes later.”

When Previn was 16, in 1944, MGM hired him to work on scores for talking films. His book No Minor Chords is full of stories about those Hollywood years. Page remembers one about the notoriously difficult Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell, who wanted to see how Previn would play with the orchestra.

There was no piano at hand. So, in Page’s recounting, Szell said: “Play it on that tabletop.”

Ridiculous, thought Previn. But he went ahead. Then Szell started giving directions: “Slower. Faster. More tender. It went on and on like this,” says Page. “And finally Previn had had enough, and said, ‘I’m sorry, Maestro. My tabletop at home has a much different action.’ ”

Szell threw him out. Previn went back to making music on real instruments — and writing it, too. He composed chamber music, concertos and operas, including his 1998 setting of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Streetcar premiered in San Francisco, with soprano Renée Fleming playing Blanche DuBois. The composer once told NPR’s Robert Siegel on All Things Considered how he readied for responses to his new work.

“Well, I prepared myself by rereading the reviews, for instance, of the opening of Carmen,” Previn said to Siegel, referring to the infamous debut of Bizet’s now classic opera.

“That was a disaster, apparently. A flop.” responded Siegel.

“Oh, yeah. Total,” Previn admitted.

(European critics liked Streetcar; U.S. reaction was mixed.)

Previn served as music director of the Houston and Pittsburgh symphonies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as principal conductor of the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras, and appeared as a frequent guest conductor worldwide. Page says Previn could be counted on for strong performances from any podium. But that long list of Previn-led orchestras does tell you something about the conductor.

“I guess it says a couple of things,” Page observes. “No. 1, it suggests that he was very interested in performing around the world, and he worked with some very fine orchestras. On the other hand, there was never that huge sort of connection with one orchestra that, say, we have with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and George Szell and Cleveland.”

Commitment problems, perhaps? Not only did Previn not make any married-for-life arrangements with any orchestras, but he went through five marriages. His ex-wives were jazz singer Betty Bennett, who sang with big bands including those of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman; the singer-songwriter Dory Previn, with whom he co-wrote the theme to the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls; actress Mia Farrow; Heather Sneddon, to whom he remained married for 20 years; and finally one of the world’s most renowned concert violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom he wrote his first violin concerto, which he named “Anne-Sophie.” (They divorced in 2006.)

Previn won four Oscars for his film work, including his adaptation of the score for the movie version of My Fair Lady. He also won 10 Grammy Awards for his film, jazz and classical recordings, as well as a lifetime achievement prize in 2009; he was also awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 1998. This versatile, gifted musician was so multitalented. But Page argues that his best work was far removed from the concert stage.

“As good as some of his high-classical music was,” Page says, “I’m not sure he ever did any better work than he did as a jazz pianist and writing for film. And there’s no disgrace in that whatsoever — I think [it’s] really good jazz piano. And he was so musical, and so lyrical and so inventive — it’s a real accomplishment.”

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

What if Mozart had lived to be a Grandpa?

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has announced its 2019-2020 season, which includes six masterpieces by Beethoven – reasonably enough, as we’ll celebrate his 250th birthday in December 2020. He was 56 when liver damage and related ailments ended his tumultuous life.

Beethoven admired the piano music of Mozart; he especially liked to play the minor-key concertos, numbers 20 and 24, in keyboard-thundering style. The teenaged Beethoven apparently met Mozart in 1787 in Vienna and may even have taken a few lessons from him.

That got me thinking: What if Mozart had lived to be as old as Papa Haydn, his inspiration (and an unsuccessful teacher of Beethoven)? Had Mozart reached 77, dying in 1833, he’d have outlived every great figure of the Classical Era: Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert and all three significant sons of Bach (Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, Wilhelm Friedemann).

Mozart could then have heard the early works of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. He might, had he been fit to travel to Paris in 1830, have enjoyed the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz, a work as game-changing in its way as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

Mozart would certainly have kept composing, had health permitted. Would his operas and symphonies have anticipated Romanticism and influenced the radical younger generation? Would he have learned new instrumentation and techniques from them?

The evidence says yes. For one thing, he liked fresh sounds: Trombones weren’t common in the orchestras of his day, but Mozart stuck them in operas and sacred music and would eventually have been the first major composer to use them in a symphony. (Beethoven gets that credit.)

For another, Mozart could interweave dark drama and light-hearted buoyancy better than anyone before Berlioz. The Fantastique does that, following a gentle love scene in the fields with a march to the scaffold and a witches’ Sabbath. Mozart showed him the way with “Don Giovanni,” where a bucolic chorus celebrates young lovers before the title character gets dragged off to Hell at last.

Mozart didn’t write musical manifestos or repudiate his predecessors. But he was a revolutionary, and that fire would have burned to the end of his days – even if that came in 1833.

Oscars Spotlight: Best Score Nominees

By Ross Hickman

Here’s some perspective on this year’s standout set of Academy Award nominees for Best Original Score:


Set in the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman is an urgent, convoluted tale of two police officers infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. The stakes couldn’t be higher, the situations more dire: the tangibility of white racial violence is acute in BlacKkKlansman, and the score brings out this palpable reality.

Terence Blanchard, the composer of the film’s score, channels the musical predilections of the ‘70s with tantalizing flights of electric guitar. Against the largely orchestral backdrop of the score, these departures – whether the jolts of the electric guitar or the war-like cascade of drums – signal moments of resolve and the panics of crisis. The score has an unmistakably epic quality; it evokes a sense of an unperturbed, righteous purpose underneath rare moments of levity.

Indeed, the score offers only glimpses of the humor that the film’s dialogue provokes. Perhaps this is a subliminal message of the score: the gravity of curbing violence lurks underneath humor.

Black Panther

The score for Black Panther finds its origins in various traditions of African music. As Ludwig Goransson conducted research for his score, he traveled to Senegal and South Africa, studying the work of both contemporary and past musicians.

The notion of a score for a superhero film with primarily African influences was entirely novel – something Goransson did not take lightly. Goransson’s compositions are meant to speak in ways that ordinary music doesn’t.

In the course of his research, Goransson found that music – in, for example, the ‘talking drums’ of several Senegalese artists – is a substantial mode of non-verbal communication for the African artists he encountered. The ‘talking drum,’ according to Goransson, was the focal point in developing a vision for Black Panther’s score.

The incorporation of musical communication as the central theme of the score is a remarkable contribution to the multi-faceted cultural encounter that is Black Panther.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Nicholas Britell, the composer of the score for the 2016 film Moonlight, returns with his second major score for the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk.

The novel, and its film adaptation, follow a young black couple’s love story, through multifarious trials of family disputes and criminal accusations.

Britell’s compositions for If Beale Street Could Talk are nothing less than devastating. Trumpets mark the sunrise that is burgeoning love; the piano beats like an erratic heart; and the strings tie the film’s vehement emotions together – a conflicting, exquisite tapestry of love despite circumstance.

As Britell discussed in an interview for The Atlantic magazine, the decision to include string instruments was pivotal; they provide the emotional depth requisite in conveying the breadth of Baldwin’s novel. It is hard to imagine the score without those straining, stretching strings that suffuse the space between the thrills of love and the pangs of injustice.

Isle of Dogs

Renowned composer Alexandre Desplat wrote the score for Isle of Dogs, a characteristically odd addition to Wes Anderson’s canon of films. At first glance, and first sound, Isle of Dogs doesn’t have a clearly recognizable score.

Desplat’s compositions could be mistaken for mere sound effects: thumps, bells, sharp clacking sounds, and deep chanting pervade the score. The sounds and instruments are so disparate that the whole thing might be chalked up to repeating layers of furious nonsense – think a technologically updated Ravel’s Boléro, perhaps.

Unlike Ravel, there is no breathtaking culmination in Desplat’s score; it shifts back and forth between sounds like a kind of musical algorithm gone wild. Wild or not, the ceaseless beating and banging and clanging drive the film forward, absurdity in tow.

All in all, Desplat’s score matches well with Anderson’s cinematic style: endlessly weird and hopelessly intriguing.

Mary Poppins Returns

There are some classics that can’t be approached without quivering. At the intersection of musical theatre and film, there are such monumental encounters as My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, both of which have endured newfound renditions in the past year. Beyond immortalized figures like Audrey Hepburn’s fussily enigmatic Eliza and Julie Andrew’s delightfully narcissistic Mary, the recordings of the films’ (and musicals’) scores have, in time, fallen out of step. The grainy magic of recordings from the mid-century has given way to perfectly polished – if not jealously affected – products of modern technological clarity.

The lyrics themselves play along nicely with the Sherman brothers’ 1964 Mary Poppins. And perhaps it’s an egregious musical fallacy to look back to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke when considering the far more inclusive and inventive work of Mary Poppins Returns.

Though some of the alluring quirkiness of “Jolly Holiday” is lost on modern audiences, the caprice of childhood and the miracle of a stranger’s kindness still reverberate in Marc Shaiman’s compositions and the voices of Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Where Julie Andrews was perhaps a bit dry and a tad formal, Emily Blunt is keenly expressive – with a more varied set of music to work with. Where Dick Van Dyke was charmingly odd, Lin-Manuel Miranda gives his Jack, an ‘apprentice’ of Bert, a more pensive, dignified outlook underpinning an ever-jovial disposition.

The old music may hold its own magic, but Mary Poppins Returns will surely take on its own luster in time.

Want more Oscars? Tune in February 22 at 8 p.m. for a brand new Reel Music from host Matt Rogers, featuring interviews with some of this year’s composer nominees!

Ross Hickman is a first-year student at Davidson College, who’s deeply interested in film music and works at WDAV.

The instrument nobody loved – except Mozart

by Lawrence Toppman

“Why don’t violists play hide and seek? Because no one would look for them.”

“What’s the difference between a violist and a dog? A dog is able to stop scratching.”

These and 10 other snarky comments come from a Classic FM article about the much-maligned middle child of the string section, which hasn’t gotten the respect other instruments receive.

Maybe that’s because violas often go unheard by audiences. They have special difficulties projecting over a full orchestra, so no top-tier composer ever wrote a solo concerto for them. Hector Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy” comes closest; it’s a symphony with solo viola parts.

But Mozart loved the viola. His Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola remains the most beautiful piece written – well, half-written – for that instrument. The father-son team of David and Igor Oistrakh made my favorite recording, though Charlotte Symphony Orchestra music director Christopher Warren-Green also did a fine one; he played violin with his London Chamber Orchestra and violist Roger Chase.

Haydn’s the father of the string quartet, but Mozart created the string quintet. Instead of using two cellos, as Schubert did in his magnificent final chamber work, Mozart put in two violas. His most profound quintet, the dark and melancholic No. 4, inspired Brahms and Dvorak to write for the same lineup. Even when Mozart tackled a horn quintet, he doubled the violas, instead of grafting the horn onto a traditional quartet of two violins, one viola and one cello.

Why did he champion the instrument?

First, for the aural bridge it provides between the violin and cello; he, more than any other composer, believed in a balance of sounds and emotions.

Second, for the warmth of its tone, especially in small ensembles.

Third, he liked to play it and often filled the viola chair in his own chamber music.

His father claimed Wolfgang could have been Europe’s greatest violinist, had he stuck with that instrument. But he stopped composing violin concertos at 19 and highlighted the viola until eight months before his death at 35; his sixth string quintet is his last great chamber piece.

Mozart made dismissive remarks about his output for flute and horn – and the people for whom they were written – but history does not record that he cracked jokes about the viola.

Wolfgang Mozart, honorary Jew

By Lawrence Toppman

I never met Harry Golden, who died in Charlotte 18 months after I arrived in March 1980. But I have read and re-read his collections of essays, “Only in America” and “For 2¢ Plain.” He was the most important Jewish journalist in the Carolinas – perhaps the South – while publishing the socially conscious Carolina Israelite newspaper from his office on Elizabeth Avenue from 1942 through 1968.

“For 2¢ Plain” came out 60 years ago and collects the musings of a man in his late 50s. There he explains why Mozart and Shakespeare remain “the supreme artists of the human race.” They’re “super-reporters” who stand outside of daily life, noting every possible emotion and behavior and describing these with a profound wisdom that comes with detachment and compassion.

People raised in a synagogue, as Golden and I were, might consider that ability to be a virtue especially common among Jews. They’ve lived almost everywhere for 5,000 years, often as outsiders in societies that may have tolerated but not embraced them. They look on; they learn; they understand, from an outsider’s point of view, what the insider does not see. That’s why so many become amazing writers.

I started to make a list and quickly realized how many of my favorite conductors and performers of Mozart have been Jews. My preferred versions of the symphonies have been led by Bruno Walter, George Szell, Yehudi Menuhin and Daniel Barenboim (whom I don’t much care about otherwise). István Kertész provided the most sympathetic concerto support on records for multiple artists.

The choicest renditions of the complete violin concertos are by David Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman. The “best” recording of the violin sonatas belongs to Joseph Szigeti, with Szell and Mieczysław Horszowski on piano. (To be fair, I should mention that Horszowski converted to Roman Catholicism.) My desert-island collections of the piano concertos come from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Murray Perahia, with additions from Annie Fischer and Clara Haskil. Not all Jewish musicians do well with Mozart: Pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein played post-Beethoven composers with more panache and insight, while violinists Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein mostly ignored him. But there does seem to be a special bond between the composer, who was raised as a Roman Catholic and remained in that church all his life, and the children of Abraham.

King of the prodigies? It’s a four-way tie.

By Lawrence Toppman

Mozart wowed European monarchs and millionaires at the age of seven, embarking on a three-and-a-half-year trip around Europe with his family. He played keyboard compositions new and old, juvenilia by himself and masterpieces by others, and improvised dazzlingly. But was he the greatest young composer in history? Well…maybe.

Mozart wrote masterpieces before his 18th birthday: his first great symphony (No. 25), the motet “Exsultate Jubilate,” some well-crafted if overlong operas, the first of his revolutionary quintets for two violins, cello and two violas.

But Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later became a Hollywood composer (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) did more impressive work in Vienna between the two world wars. By his 18th birthday, his operas “Violanta” and “The Ring of Polykrates” earned wide acclaim, he wrote a stimulating Sinfonietta, and beloved pianist Artur Schnabel often played his Sonata No. 2.

What about Felix Mendelssohn? Great work shot out of his pen before he turned 18, from his Octet for Strings to his Beethoven-like Symphony No. 1 and the irresistible overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (He wrote the rest of that amazing incidental music later.) He also knocked out 12 short but impressive symphonies for strings and a mature string quartet.

These three died in middle age: Mozart at 35, Korngold at 60, Mendelssohn at 38. So the title of Composing Prodigy Who Died Too Young goes to Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

Not only does he share the first two names on Mozart’s birth certificate. Not only was he born 50 years to the day after WAM on January 27, 1806. In his teens, he wrote a Stabat Mater, two cantatas, short piano works, an octet, a nonet, an opera titled “The Happy Slaves,” three immaculate string quartets (I’ve heard those) and a lively, polished Symphony in D (ditto).

He had to do all that before turning 20, because he died (probably from tuberculosis) 10 days short of that birthday. Listen to his music, and you’ll always wonder if the man posthumously dubbed ”The Spanish Mozart” would have lived up to that nickname.