Season XVII Recap: Mozart to Mikado

From Artistic Director Stephen Morton:

The title of this concert might raise the question: What is the connection between Mozart and The Mikado? Mozart wrote operas and The Mikado is an operetta, but they are completely different stylistically and place very different demands on the singers. What possible link could there be? 
 
Truthfully, there isn’t one other than the “smile factor” that exists in my mind. When I listen to Mozart’s music, I usually find myself smiling. There is just something I find innately humorous about much of his music, but not all of it. Some of it, like the second movement of his Concerto for Flute and Harp is simply so beautiful, it causes a swell of emotion. And, of course, there is little humor in his sacred music such as his Vesperae solennes de confessore. Sopranos who lack great range and flexibility would surely fail to see anything funny about attempting such arias as “Martern aller Arten”, although I must admit that I smile hearing those coloratura passages executed flawlessly. But how can anyone listen to the overture to Eine kleine Nachtmusik or the overture to Marriage of Figaro and not smile?
 
The humor of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas speaks for itself. In its day, it provided some biting commentary on English politics and society thinly disguised by placing the characters in remote and sometimes fictional locales. Without that commentary, there is nothing at all serious about the music except its ability to bring smiles to audiences. And I suppose that’s the real genius of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan: they transcend the time and place for which they were written. Maybe that’s the real link between Mozart and Mikado: they are timeless.
 
A few notable highlights:
 
Concerto for Flute and Harp
Mozart wrote only two double concertos. When he wrote the Concerto for Flute and Harp in 1778, the harp was not yet a part of the orchestra. This unlikely work was commissioned by a fine flautist of the day for himself and his daughter who was taking music lessons with Mozart. Requiring great skill from both soloists, it is standard repertoire for chamber and symphony orchestras and has been recorded many times. The second movement marked “Andantino” is truly beautiful and has a cadenza allowing the soloists freedom in writing their own development of the themes, followed by a coda reemphasizing the beautiful melody. Soloists Jennifer Adams, flute, and Megan Stout, Harp, both appear regularly with the Salem Chamber Orchestra.
 
 
Vesperae solennes de confessore
Mozart composed Vesperae solennes de confessore in 1780 while serving as court organist in Salzburg. His duties included composing church music only for special occasions. What was the special occasion? The answer is unclear. 
 
Vespers is a prayer service that takes place in late afternoon or evening. “Solennes” or “solemn vespers” may be interpreted in different ways. Solemn in this case could simply mean a musical setting of vespers with orchestra and soloists. This more elaborate way of celebrating vespers in itself defines the vespers as “solemn” which explains “solennes” in the title. The term “confessore” is a reference to Christians who dared to declare their faith during the time of Roman persecution. In the 18th Century, it was common practice to celebrate the higher ranking confessor saints with a more elaborate, or solemn, vespers service. It is likely that Mozart wrote this Vespers for the evening before a feast day in honor of one of these high ranking confessor saints. However, since there is no reference to a particular saint in the title, the honoree’s identity is uncertain.
 
Of special note in this vespers is the fifth movement, Laudate Dominum. While Mozart does use the chorus in this movement, it is largely in the background. Laudate Dominum is a beautiful aria-like setting of Psalm 117 requiring a soprano soloist with exceptional breath control and power of expression and is often performed by soprano and orchestra apart from the full work.
 
Vesperae solennes de confessore possesses the charming qualities typical of Mozart’s music and deserves regular performances. 
 
Eine kleine Nachtmusik
The opening of the first movement of this popular work, a Mannheim rocket theme in fashion at the time, is one of the most recognizable tunes in all of classical music. The opening scenes of the movie Amadeus, shows the composer Antonio Salieri in his old age being visited by a young priest. When Salieri tells the priest he was once a well-known composer, the priest asks to hear some of Salieri’s music. Salieri goes to the keyboard and plays tune after tune that had been celebrated in days gone by. Although the priest wanted to hear something that he could say was familiar in order to encourage Salieri, he didn’t recognize any of the tunes. Then Salieri says, “How about this one?” As he plays four measures, the priest excitedly says that he does indeed know it and starts singing the tune. Then he, says, “That piece is so charming! Did you write that”? “No”, says Salieri. That was Mozart.
 
The tune in question was the opening bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, a “Mannheim rocket theme” in vogue at the time. It is still one of the most recognizable tunes in all of classical music.
 

Thank you to all of our patrons who helped make our debut concert of Season XVII another success. We look forward to seeing you again this Christmas.