The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical Music Q&A: Composer John Harbison talks about public misperceptions of Mozart and modern musicians losing Bach

August 24, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is the second of my two-part interview with John Harbison (below) about the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which begins tonight at 8 p.m. with husband-and-wife pianists Robert levin and Ya-Fei Chuang  in a concert of music for two pianos by Debussy, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski and Harbison. The festival runs through Sunday, Sept. 4, and includes an all-Mozart program, a jazz cabaret and an all-J.S. Bach program. including the cantata “Mein Herz Swimmt im Blut” (at bottom).

The first part, with all the scheduled events, was posted yesterday.

For more information about concert dates, performers, programs, tickets availability, direction and photos, visit:

ON MOZART: “The Mozart program is the completion of the cycle of piano concertos he wrote and arranged for small chamber groups. The only one we haven’t done is the next to last concerto, the “Coronation” Concerto (K. 537) and we want to complete that cycle with Bob Levin as soloist (below left, with John Harbison).

“We’ve also been interested in Bob Levin’s completions of Mozart (below). This piano trio (K. 442) is actually made of three movement not originally meant to go together. I wasn’t aware of this, but Bob Levin informed me that one of three pieces Mozart worked on is incomplete. That’s a pretty high percentage.

“Also, for a number of years we’ve wanted to perform an early Divertimento No. 2 in B-flat major (K. 278)  that Mozart essentially wrote for his own retirement announcement as a violinist. He was a great violin player as a young guy, and these are really great pieces that are show pieces for the violin. Mozart played them, then stepped back into the viola chair. He was very pleased with the way he played them. I think these are extraordinary and rewarding works, which compare favorably to the Viola Quintets. After he played them, Mozart tipped his hat and went off to write string quartets. It’s like his farewell to his solo violin career so he could pursue his composing career and his piano career. It’s an appealing program that picks up and completes some strands of the festival and involves a world premiere of the trio.

“The public misperception about Mozart that I’d like to correct is the one that has always been around: That he goes down easy and is always breezy and delightful. The first perception after he died was that he was a tough and difficult composer. We’ve lost that sense of Mozart as being a composer of infinite variety for his time, this his work is something that always something that needs to be fresh. He was a turning point in the history of music. Mozart picked up on things in Haydn no one else picked up on. Plus, his music is so hard to perform. There is no room to hide.”

ON BACH: “We’ve lost Bach  (below) at the big symphony orchestras. I talk to instrumentalists from them when I direct a Bach cantata every summer at the Tanglewood Festival and they all same they same thing: “We’ve lost Bach.” In a way, it’s good-bye to Bach in the current scheme of things. It’s an inadvertent but genuine result of the original performance movement. There are a lot of professional players and audiences who don’t get to play or hear this great music. The story is the same with Hadyn. There’s going to come a time when the larger institutions really have to rethink this. It’s across the board. It’s not only instrumentalists but also singers who are being tracked away. They are considered not eligible for Bach and Mozart.”

“You want to try to give some hint of the variety of Bach’s work and how richly engaged with the world his pieces are. We try to touch on a lot of different areas in which he wrote. It’s a very long career, and we cover the early, middle and late period pieces. So our program is an overview. Some of us at Emmanuel Music of Boston (below, in a Token Creek performance of a cantata last year) are working as proselytizers of Bach. Some 25 or 30 years ago, his motets were still sung in high schools. Now we find over and over that we are bringing Bach’s music into situations where it is new.”

“What’s so appealing about it is that it is all on such a high level. That is the idea behind the program. We want listeners to get a sense of the variety and the quality of his music.  Even if Bach writes a very popular piece like the “Coffee” Cantata, he has all gates open and never takes a day off. I can’t think of any other composer who is as totally on all the time. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s all top-drawer. With Bach, there really isn’t a second drawer. Even in that huge body of work of his, there is no second gear.”

Posted in Classical music

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