The official program and Gallery view at Heinz Hall during Robert Levin's pre-concert lecture. April 27th. It was a beautiful Sunday aft...

Mozart in the Steel City: Experiencing the Novel Authentic with Robert Levin

The official program and Gallery view at Heinz Hall during Robert Levin's pre-concert lecture.

April 27th. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh as the city's animated populace strolled about in its charming cultural district. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a tender spring chill in the air. Many were making their way to the stunningly beautiful Heinz Hall, myself included, for a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Mozart Festival. I'd been greeted at the Sixth and Penn Garage with signage featuring "Music's Biggest Star." 

I was joined by my twin sister Sheryl, with whom I've shared many Mozart adventures near and far, and our parents, Earl and Patricia, who have always been a tremendous source of love and support in our lives and careers. Needless to say, the experience was made all the more enjoyable by their presence that day! Sheryl and I had been here not so long ago, in October 2012, to attend a unique presentation of Mozart's Requiem narrated by F. Murray Abraham, the city's native son. See: Blessedness and Humanity as Performance Art in Mozart's Requiem.

My sister Sheryl's photo of the Grand Lobby at Heinz Hall.

Today marked another special experience with Mozart's music in Pittsburgh. Today was about hearing new music and hearing the music anew, inherent characteristics of Mozart's very own Musikalische Akademien (musical academy concerts) in Vienna.

Mozart offered his audience an exclusive experience beholden only to that moment, never again to be repeated, through the art of improvisation and the novelty of his latest compositions. His concerts were unsurpassed in popularity in the 1780s. Anyone who was anyone in Vienna was there. The new medium Mozart created, the piano concerto, enabled him to showcase his abilities as composer, performer, inventor, showman and entrepreneur in one masterful flourish.

The PSO Mozart Festival signage downtown at Sixth and Penn.

This afternoon, in reminiscent regard of musical academies past, I would hear Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 with new cadenzas and embellishments, hot off the press improvisation in Mozartian style and a new completion of his Horn Concerto No. 1. It was surely a premiere affair on the festival season calendar, which brought forth one of the most original and authentic concerts on offer. 

And at the center of it all was none other than the renowned scholar, theorist and pianist Robert Levin, a truly great guardian, interpreter and presenter of Mozart's music. Having followed the trajectory of his work, it was very special to finally have the opportunity to attend one of his performances! Watch Levin's interview with Jim Cunningham (WQED-FM) about the Pittsburgh Mozart Festival performances.

From discussing his humble beginnings to his commission to write a completion of the Requiem for the bicentenary of Mozart's death in 1991, the pre-concert talk with Levin was a wonderful preface to the program. Erudition certainly doesn't render him catatonic or otherwise removed. He was just as witty and engaging with the audience in conversation as much as he would be in musical dialogue that afternoon. 

"This is one for the ages," Levin said, as the audience laughed in anticipation of what words he might quote from the not always demure Mozart. But what he was referring to were Mozart's words about catering his music to both connoisseurs and amateurs, something Levin would do himself in performance that day. He emphasized the importance of audience contribution to musical performance and improvisation and how difficult and uninspired a recording session could be without their presence.

Levin's pre-concert talk at Heinz Hall.

The audience loved his storytelling. He said that his parents weren't musicians or musicologists, but that his father was probably one of the biggest Mozart fans on Earth. His father, who made porcelain teeth as his occupation, didn't have the money to buy an engagement ring, so he melted some of the porcelain to make a ring. 

And I couldn't help but think of the humbleness he inevitably retained from his childhood when later in the conversation he talked about how he felt that he wasn't the right person to take on the Requiem completion. Those commissioning the work said this was exactly why he was the person for the job. In August 1991, Levin's completion of the Requiem was performed by Helmuth Rilling at the European Music Festival in Stuttgart to a standing ovation. He told the audience, amused and surprised himself by the sheer quantity, that are 126 recordings of his edition.

Given the novelty of the two concertos by Levin, the program was appropriately book-ended with two of the most popular and iconic of Mozart concert staples: Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Symphony No. 41. The serenade was a lovely opening to the program (although I felt the Rondo was uncomfortably fast) and shortly thereafter the stage transitioned to accommodate the full orchestra (a smaller orchestra performed the serenade) and a grand piano for Levin's performance. 

Like all Mozart admirers, I've heard the Piano Concerto No. 20 countless times (many more times than Mozart himself heard it, as Levin would say), but I'd never experienced it the way I did that afternoon. I never laughed or smiled as much for all of Levin's nuances and quips, out of pure joy, surprise and happiness to be in the moment. The energy was palpable. This, before my very ears, was essence of Mozart's concert experience. It was charismatic, unscripted, spontaneous. It was all about the moment, a moment that was unique to an audience and that audience alone.

This extant ticket from a Mozart academy concert bears his own validating stamp on the corner.

There was a weightless emancipation that heightened the artistry, a quality absent from recordings and the average concert experience where an artist is expected to perform a standardized version of a work. Levin, being known for his restoration of period performance practice of improvised embellishments and cadenzas, filled the space with abundant life. 

In his lectures, he always likens Mozart's concert atmospheric to that of a jazz club, where the audience interjects with applause and shouts when they like certain passages, and in his animated showmanship and reciprocal dialogue with the audience, he certainly followed suit. As Levin finished the last cadenza of the concerto, he turned to the audience and gestured in such a way that laughter filled the hall. Resounding applause and a standing ovation followed the final notes of the work. "Bravo!" The audience response was electric! 

"Fasten your seatbelts," Levin said on a few occasions to preface the afternoon. And we certainly did, especially when it came to his improvisational game with the audience! He had asked audience members to write two bars of music on a slip of paper and after the intermission, he pulled a few of these slips out of a hat. He commended each author on his/her melody and asked them to stand up for recognition. He then again emphasized that the music about to be made would be entirely unique to our shared experience. 

To get an idea of the experience, watch Levin's presentation "Improvising Mozart" as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Chamber Music at the University of Cambridge.

"It's just me and you," he said. Then, after giving the slips of paper once last glance and playing a few notes on the keyboard, Levin dove passionately into an improvisation based on those melodies in the style of Mozart for about 10 minutes. It was impressive and breathtaking. Silence enveloped the hall and you could feel the anticipation. We were hanging onto the edge of our seats. Waiting, watching, listening. What would happen next?

As a practitioner of Mozart's music for decades, having both performed and completed his works, Levin knows as much as anyone could about Mozart's improvisational and compositional processes. To hear him perform was like receiving a new musical communication from Mozart. That's why this day was so special, and why Levin is such an important figure in restoring performance practice and its associated artist/audience relationship. 

The art of improvisation was as natural as breathing air in the 18th Century, and Mozart himself did so with the greatest fluency. As Levin said before the concert, Mozart would "shake the notes out of his sleeve" and easily create music on demand. If Mozart's contemporaries praised his improvisational prowess more than his ability to compose music, how do we even begin to grasp such a phenomena?

Photo of Levin by Herb Ascherman. Courtesy of Rayfield Allied.

Now that the whole of Heinz Hall was on its toes from the concerto and improvisational exercise, we now had the pleasure to experience Levin's completion of Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 1. It had been published only a few months ago by Breitkopf, so these weekend performances were indeed premiere performances. William Caballero, who has been Principal Horn in Pittsburgh for 24 years, played the concerto beautifully. 

Levin said a century ago people believed Mozart returned to this work to improve it when he was really revising it for his friend Leutgeb who had lost his teeth and couldn't play more than an octave (As a trumpet player, I'm thinking of the time I had to adjust my embouchure to accommodate braces in middle school. I can't imagine the challenge of playing with so few teeth!).

Levin acknowledges his standing ovation from the audience.

The concerto was left to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Mozart's student/assistant known for his completion of the Requiem, to rewrite Mozart's draft in 1792. As Levin stated in the notes accompanying his edition of the score: "Süssmayr inexplicably ignored Mozart's accompaniment, replacing it with a coarser texture replete with grammatical errors. Today's hornist is not bound by Leutgeb's lack of teeth, so that it seemed legitimate to restore the passage in the first movement that contains the low notes Leutgeb apparently wanted removed. This gives the two movements the same range. I have supplied a new instrumentation of the Rondo with the proper scoring, again trying to avoid overly busy or fancy textures." 

When asked about Süssmayr's completion of the Requiem in his interview with Jim Cunningham, Levin replied that "Süssmayr does the equivalent of 'I ain't got no pencil'" (Mozart's laughter is nearly audible from that remark!).

The five-voice fugato in the finale of Symphony No. 41 was a perfect ending to the afternoon. For me, there are certain moments in Mozart's music when, despite my knowledge as a listener and musician, I feel he's distinctly beyond my reach. The Jupiter finale is one of those moments. 

In this, I'll default to the words of Sir George Grove: "It is for the finale that Mozart has reserved all the resources of his science, and all the power, which no one seems to have possessed to the same degree with himself, of concealing that science, and making it the vehicle for music as pleasing as it is learned. Nowhere has he achieved more."

This afternoon being my second extraordinary experience with Mozart's music at Heinz Hall, all within the short span of a year and a half, I can say with confidence that they adore Mozart in the Steel City and continue to present his music with great care and artistry. I hope they are richly recognized for their excellence in programming and presentation, which from observation, draws diverse audiences. 

I certainly look forward to what's next from Maestro Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra! And as for Robert Levin, since he's retiring this year from Harvard, I hope this means that the rest of us will have more opportunities to hear him perform in concert halls throughout the world. Thank you for an unforgettable experience. Herzlichen dank! Tutti Bravi!

My sister Sheryl took this photo of me after the concert!


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