5 Questions with Music Director Paul Schrage
What do you love about the music of Mozart?
So many things. On the level of an individual composition, I absolutely love his phrase structure, and how the combination of phrases creates the larger form. Sometimes the phrase structure is perfectly balanced 8 bar phrases. Other times it’s an odd 13 bar phrase, or a 12 bar phrase consisting of a 7 and 5 bar phrases. But it always sounds just right, and it allows the music to flow in such a way that the form makes perfect sense.
On more of a macro level, I’m always amazed at his output. He was an absolute master of every genre during his time. Opera, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, sacred choral music, nothing was out of reach for his genius and creativity. I love that, as both a conductor and a pianist, I am privileged to be able to play so much of his music. Between conducting and playing piano, I have most certainly played more of Mozart’s music than any other composer.
Finally, I greatly admire Mozart the artist. He never received the permanent post he longed for, and so he had to make his living as a freelance composer, performer, and teacher. As such, he had tight deadlines (the Linz symphony was written in 4 days), not enough time to complete his work (oftentimes the solo part was missing in the manuscripts of his piano concerti), and sometimes lacked full autonomy over his work (in those days opera singers could demand the composer write to show off their voice). Yet he never sacrificed his art to save time or energy. Rather, he seemed to thrive under these conditions. It’s truly remarkable, and knowing this makes me appreciate his music even more.
Do you have a special memory of any of Mozart’s works?
One of my cherished memories is watching my mentor George Cleve conduct the 40th symphony. I had moved to the Bay Area a few years prior, and didn’t know who George was. I had also just decided to learn conducting, and somebody invited me to see him conduct at Symphony Silicon Valley. I was blown away, so I got tickets for every performance at the next Midsummer Mozart Festival. At the San Francisco Conservatory concert hall I could sit behind the orchestra, and it was the first time I was able to actually watch him conduct.
Some background: the 3rd movement of the 40th symphony is a traditional minuet & trio form. The minuet section begins with a hemiola (simply put, the accents are in the “wrong” place). As the minuet section develops, these “wrong” accents increase, and phrases overlap, giving the listener a very unsettled feeling. Whenever I hear this movement I always feel like I’m getting hit from all sides.
Watching George handle this movement sticks out the most during that performance. The way he controlled this cacophony and built it up was stunning. My jaw was on the floor. It was after that performance that I reached out to him and asked if he would give me lessons, and to my great benefit he agreed.
How is learning or performing a Mozart work different than other composers?
I feel the weight of history when studying a Mozart work more than any other composer. There is an immense amount of research, performance practice, and tradition surrounding his music. Yet the music needs to sound as fresh as if it were written yesterday. Once I have learned the work, it’s in my hands and I’m off the page, I have a harder time being free with it than I do any other composer. So much has been written about every note that I find it difficult to put the research away when it’s time to perform.
What role has Mozart’s music had for you during the pandemic?
Mozart’s music has been pretty consistent for me throughout the pandemic. I’ve learned Don Giovanni, and had the fortune to study the score with 2 master opera conductors, Paul Nadler and Carlo Montanaro. I learned the Piano Concerto no. 11, K. 413, which I’ve always wanted to play. I’m also currently relearning the Sonata for Violin and Piano, K. 378, for concerts in the Midwest with an old friend and duet partner. I’ll also occasionally just open a random symphony to practice score reading at the piano.
I think practicing Mozart’s music is similar to listening to his music, in the sense that it’s enjoyable on a superficial level and on an immensely deep level. There have been days during the pandemic where I’ve felt worn out and stressed out, and the last thing I wanted to do was open a score and practice. So I simply turned on the metronome and opened up some Mozart. It got my hands moving, and brought my attention back to music. Pretty soon I was ready to engage with the music at a deeper and deeper level.
Mozart’s music has the ability to meet the listener wherever they are. It doesn’t challenge the listener. Rather, it invites the listener to engage more fully, and to experience the beauty more completely with every passing bar. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent so much time with his music during the pandemic. After so many challenges it’s really nice to feel invited to experience sublime beauty.
Any other thoughts on Mozart and his music?
I think it is helpful to remember that Mozart was a man who experienced a great deal of difficulty and tragedy. We could tell his life story in the following. He was a child star who quickly became yesterday’s news. His mother died while they were in Paris together, separated from the rest of his family. He quit the job his father had secured for him and moved to Vienna on his own, which exacerbated a rift between father and son. He and his sister also grew apart, while they had been quite close as children. The first woman he loved rejected him. 4 of his 6 children didn’t survive infancy. He spent more money than he earned and had to borrow money from friends. A war dramatically reduced his professional opportunities, and he never secured the post he always felt he deserved. He died at the age of 35, and nobody knows where he is buried.
That doesn’t sound like the life of somebody who wrote the vast majority of his music in major keys. He didn’t live in a celebrity bubble. He experienced real pain, suffering, and stress. Yet his music can only be described as joyous, hopeful, and vibrant. I think it’s a wonderful reminder that we often can’t control what happens to us in our lives, but we can control how we react to it. I find Mozart, the man, immensely inspiring in his ability to always be moving forward and create everlasting beauty in this world, regardless of circumstances.