A few times a season, if I am a very good boy, the National Arts Centre Orchestra invites me to speak to audiences before their concerts, or to interview musicians onstage after. Last Thursday and Friday were a little nervous-making because for the first time I interviewed the orchestra’s music director, Pinchas Zukerman, who doesn’t fake it if he’s not having a good time. My luck held, because the superb young Danish-born violinist Nicolaj Znaider was on hand, and Zukerman is very fond of Znaider, so we had a blast. I learned a lot.
But I also sat in the audience for both concerts. And days later I can’t stop thinking about the piece the two men played together. It was new to me. It has one of those tedious classical names: the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E Flat, K 364. All that means is that it’s a concert piece with more than one soloist. Zukerman played viola, which looks like a larger violin and plays one fifth lower. Znaider played the violin part.
With Mozart I often check to see how old he was when he wrote a piece. This one was written in 1779, when he was 23, already a renowned musician but with fully a decade left in his short life. As far as he knew, he had a full life ahead of him. But this is an unusually serious piece for a young guy: fully a half hour long, with a kind of moral weight to it that I (naïvely) don’t often associate with Mozart. The last movement is festive, but by then the soloists and orchestra have earned it, because there’s a weariness and determination to it that makes it sound like the work of an older man and a later era. The slow movement is heartbreaking, not just the solo parts, but the orchestral parts too.
The program notes revealed little about the piece. I have some music reference books at home and they don’t tell much more. Mozart wrote it in Salzburg, when he wasn’t on the road, so he wasn’t writing the letters to his father or sister that usually reveal so much about his music: for whom he was writing, for which occasion, the effects he was seeking, the response he expected and received. The Sinfonia Concertante is a mystery. It’s likely, but not certain, that Mozart wrote the viola part for himself. It’s possible, though less likely, that he wrote the violin part for his father. Nobody knows. It was barely performed anywhere for many decades after Mozart’s death. Only in the last few decades has it become a repertoire standard. One of its champions is Zukerman, who learned it with Isaac Stern and has recorded it with Itzhak Perlman.
One thing we do know is that Mozart wrote it after his 1777-79 travels to Mannheim and Paris. These were enterprises, not of celebration, but of hope verging on desperation: Mozart wanted a patron, a steady post in some noble house, some certainty about his next paycheque and a stable cast of musicians to write for. And he couldn’t find one. He knew how great he was — the great ones always know — but he couldn’t get steady work. He went home rejected and despairing. He would bounce back later, but this was one of the low points in his life.
So how did he react? He wrote a big, sombre, ingenious piece that would, it turns out, still be knocking audiences out 232 years later. It’s a mug’s game to attribute motive, but to me it’s at least plausible Mozart was making a stand: declaring in a moment of discouragement, not to the world but to himself, that he was as good as anyone had ever been. That he had as much to say as anyone ever had. He was down but not out. Statements like this in art ask us insistent questions about how we will handle the challenges our own lives hand us. Do we surrender? Or do we push back, with all the grace and style we can muster?
Here’s a video of Zukerman, sporting quite a beard, and Isaac Stern playing the first part of the Sinfonia Concertante in 1980. The soloists enter after about 3 minutes in the video, and it’s this part that I can’t get out of my head this week. The orchestra is chugging along nicely. The two soloists enter on a long held note that starts too quietly to hear, then sneaks into the foreground. They play the same descending melody an octave apart. All the theory books warn composers about parallel octaves, because there’s something about that sound that cuts right through everything else, in a way that’s trouble if you don’t intend it. But here it does precisely what Mozart wanted. It makes the soloists, whose presence seemed like an accident or an audible illusion only two bars ago, suddenly the centre of attention. We’re here, it says. In fact we always were.