Program Notes

with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488

“Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name,” Franz Joseph Haydn told Leopold Mozart, the father of the prodigy from Salzburg. “He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

Who can argue with Haydn, much less Mozart’s legacy as one of the world’s most revered creative minds? Those who need evidence should turn to the keyboard concertos, which stand apart from all other of his creations except his mature operas.

While Mozart wrote concertos for a variety of instruments, his works for piano form an organic whole, and show almost no holes in their consistency. To say Mozart was on a roll is an understatement, a fact stressed by the noted musicologist Alfred Einstein in his book, Mozart: His Character, His Music.

“Of the more than 50 symphonies by Mozart there are, strictly speaking, four that belong among the eternal treasures of music,” he wrote. “Of the 30-odd string quartets, ten. But among the (27) concertos for piano and orchestra, there is only one that is below the highest level.”

The work on this week’s masterworks program represents Mozart at his most confident. The A Major Concerto blends purity with spirituality, yet it requires no homework to enjoy on first hearing.

Like so many of his other concertos, this piece combines three essential elements – an instinctual feel for the keyboard, symphony and opera – which together elevate them in the echelon of the Classical-era tradition. The keyboard gave Mozart the vehicle to explore his prodigious skill, the symphonic writing clothed it, and from opera came the song.

The simple clarity of the allegro movement may never have been surpassed – although the Clarinet Quintet comes to mind – the serene music sounding all the more transparent without trumpets and timpani.

The tender adagio in the rarest of Mozart keys speaks of delicate and enduring passions of the heart, especially as the woodwinds rise, with mournful restraint, from the center. Some might wonder if the music of the second theme inspired Beethoven in the adagio of his transcendent Hammerklavier Sonata.

“That beautiful haunting melody in F-sharp minor is incredibly profound,’’ says TFO Music Director Michael Francis.

Mozart sets the finale in motion as a rondo with three joyous staccato notes that usher in the strings, whose contrast seems designed to upstage the piano. But strings and keyboard soon embrace a set of eight distinct themes and run with them, creating a heady counterpoint of ideas that become musical architecture in perfect balance.

Mozart composed the concerto as much to please audiences as himself, and called it “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult … brilliant, pleasing to the ear, without being vapid.’’

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor

“My time will come,” the composer Gustav Mahler predicted in response to public confusion over his music. At the dawn of the 20th century, listeners puzzled over his sprawling sound world, where ideas seem to float aimlessly, crash into one another and stretch the limits of imagination and tolerance.

Today, such reactions seem quaint, as Mahler is adored, his works viewed as high points on season programs. Thanks in part to advocates such as Leonard Bernstein, Mahler’s nine completed symphonies are firmly planted in concert calls around the world, and give concertgoers their money’s worth. His creations aren’t just big, but magisterial in the depth and dimension of their message.

“The symphony must be like the world,” Mahler once said. “It must embrace everything.”

This explains the Fifth Symphony, which TFO unveils this weekend. Many patrons remember past performances led by former music directors Jahja Ling in 1992 and 1998, and Stefan Sanderling in 2004.

The Fifth marks a turning point in Mahler’s development – a purely instrumental, abstract symphony without singers or extra-musical programs. With the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth, Mahler let the orchestra stand alone. The Fifth also is the composer’s most contrapuntal – many voiced – structure, introducing dense, crisscrossing, polyphonic textures not heard in his earlier works.

“When Mahler was writing the Fifth he was playing Bach all the time, and the relationship is very clear and strong,’’ Francis says about the connection between Mahler and the Baroque master.

The symphony unfolds in five movements, but Mahler organized them in three interrelated parts:

Part 1
Funeral March, in C-sharp minor
Allegro, in A minor
Part 2
Scherzo, in D major
Part 3
Adagietto, in F major
Rondo-Finale, in D major

In his book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker magazine, describes the music as a heroic struggle with “a delirious funeral march, a wild, sprawling scherzo, a dreamily lyrical adagietto, and a radiant, chorale-driven finale.’’

Stretching nearly 70 minutes, it opens with a foreboding four-note trumpet call that descends into a funeral march of grand proportion. At times, the sections of the orchestra seem to be on the verge of becoming unhinged.

The second movement is an extension of the first, but imbued with an unresolved upheaval – angry and impassioned, even schizophrenic – that concludes Part I of the work. Mahler’s marking in the score directs the orchestra to play “with the utmost vehemence.’’ Most conductors observe a long pause after ending this movement.

The symphony’s second part begins with a massive scherzo – 820 bars – full of rustic country waltzes and extended horn solos, and ends with a rousing flourish. Here Mahler delivers a grand, interlocking fugue right from a page of Bach.

The movement serves as a bridge from darkness to light, moving us away from frenetic energy to tranquility: one of Mahler’s most sublime creations, an adagietto of exquisite beauty and poise. Here, time stands still in an interlude scored only for strings and harp. It’s no wonder that this is the composer’s most frequently performed music.

Mahler’s wife, Alma, viewed it as her personal love song. Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the adagietto often is played as a stand-alone concert piece, and was featured in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice.

The music leads without a break into a lone horn summoning the rondo finale, and the mood shifts dramatically. From the darkness of Part 1, the turmoil of the scherzo and the ethereal adagietto, this last section unfolds in sunlit relief, the orchestra juggling a quadruple fugue before the horns lead everyone to an exuberant close.

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based writer and former music critic for the Tampa Tribune.