De-mystifying Mozart

Photo by Joan Anderson

Photo by Joan Anderson

Mozart lovers get two winter treats. One of Mozart’s late great symphonies, the Great G Minor #40, is being offered by the Downey Symphony Orchestra at the Downey Theatre on January 20.

First, however, comes the whispered pianissimo notes, very fast and agitated, of Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. “Fun, exciting, the perfect way to shoot out of the gate to start a concert” Maestro Sharon Lavery says.

The presto tempo adds to the feeling of intrigue and secrecy anticipated in the comic opera to come. Effervescent melodies bubble up throughout the piece, creating a feeling of wit, anticipation, and buoyant good humor.

Fans will listen for the long, extended, controlled crescendo which ends the piece. This is the famous “Mannheim crescendo,” a sudden dynamic process where the whole orchestra transitions from pianissimo to fortissimo within an incredibly short time.

For his Great Symphony #40 in G Minor, Mozart wrote not one but two versions, and the second one differs because in it he added - and no one knows why – a part for the newest member of the woodwind family, the clarinet. This made for a bigger woodwind section, and a bigger orchestra.

The clarinet had begun life as a shepherd’s pipe or chalmeau, but recently a new register key had been added, which increased its range by over two octaves, and Mozart wanted to include it. If purists want to hear the first version that came into Mozart’s fertile mind, today’s Symphony Orchestras can perform either, with or without the clarinets.

We asked Musical Director Lavery which version we would be hearing, and how she made her choice. “I’d never be able to look our principal clarinetist in the eye,” she answered, “if I didn’t chose the version with the clarinets.”

“But seriously,” the conductor went on, “the wind section, to my ear, sounds much more complete with the clarinets. So I guess the short answer is, yes, the fact that I am a clarinet did influence my decision.”

In the “Great” G Minor Symphony, the listener can make the connection as Mozart uses the Mannheim School of Special Effects again, to give a strong emotional quality as a sense of tragedy and grief climaxes the Fourth Movement. Although the Symphony is not scored for timpani, or the kettle drums, yet to our surprise, thunder crashes around us and waterfalls roar. It is the Mannheim Rocket effect, achieved with a passage that rises swiftly through several octaves in a series of rising notes, an arpeggio, and that dynamite crescendo.

Music of the Sturm und Dram (Storm and Stress) period often uses a minor key, to suggest passion and indecision. This is one of only 2 minor key symphonies Mozart wrote, that sunny man from Salzburg. Calling it “Great” distinguishes it from the ‘Little” #25, also in G minor, but written in Mozart’s early years.

“Personally,” Lavery said, “I love this symphony because of all of the harmonic twists and turns that Mozart takes us through. When you think he’s going one way with the harmonic progression, he leads us into a completely different key.

“This type pf genius composing keeps things dramatic and curious at all times,” said Lavery. “Just when you think a typical cadence will end with a soft dynamic of piano, you get a loud forte ending that brings us into a new key. What should be a calming slow movement is agitating.”

“The traditional sunny minuet is again in a G minor,” said Downey’s conductor, “and heavily chromatic. It’s sort of like ending a typical sentence of a story in a certain way, but then somehow the story shifts in an instant with a shocking new twist. “

“When we perform it,” Lavery said, “I will ask the orchestra to bring out these twists and turns. I will ask them to emphasize these harmonic turns by perhaps accenting the first notes of these surprising new keys or surprising new chords. I might ask them to emphasize these dramatic harmonic surprises with the overall dynamics.”

“This whole symphony is filled with drama and agitation,” said Lavery. “It is an absolute gem that takes you on a very satisfying musical journey.” Written during the Viennese years, this Great G Minor Symphony is recognized as one of the gateway pieces to the Romantic era.

Lavery as Music Director chose to continue the evening’s concert with Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, a playful story with a narration that provides an interactive component for the audience.

The dark “Into the Woods” theme is introduced when, as in all good fairy tales, the hero gets in trouble when he enters forbidden territory. For a little boy, that means going beyond the farm fence into the meadow that leads to the forest. Even though it is broad daylight, it is off limits. But surprise, Peter’s breaking boundaries pays off and music lovers from 9 to 90 plus love to hear Peter as represented by a cheerful string quartet when he skips into the meadow.

Prokofiev’s piece has introduced generations to the instruments of the Orchestra, from the Cat, as played by the clarinet “in the lower register,” (the chalmeau again, now an alto clarinet), to Grandfather’s grumbling bassoon. The oboe is the Duck, quacking. Flute followers listen just to hear the Bird trilling, cajoling, fluttering and fretting, and finally saying ‘I told you so.’ Audiences cheer (spoiler alert) when the boisterous kettle drums blaze on the scene as the Hunters rescue Peter from the snarling French horns of the villainous Wolf.

For Prokofiev writing in 1937, Peter represented the valor of the younger generation of Bolshevik youths, and Grandfather the overly conservative and stubborn older generation. No matter what your politics, everyone is happy when the wolf is captured and a Mozart-like balance is achieved again.

Peter and the Wolf showcased some of the great voices and orchestras of the 20th century. In the days before television, families would sit and listen to records together, and a 1939 recording such as RCA Victor made with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony was a family treasure. In 1946 Disney featured included Peter as an animated short in Make Mine Music, and Deems Taylor did an unforgettable voice-over commentary.

Celebrity narrators have included Eleanor Roosevelt, Sean Connery and Ronald Reagan, Sophia Loren and Sting. Downey audiences will be treated to Antony Moreno who charmed us in the Love Letters portion of the Red Violin program several winters ago.

True to Downey Symphonic Society tradition, there will be a world premiere on the program, local composer Lars Clutterhams’ short Instrumental Suite for Orchestra, The Arc of My Life.

“I asked Lars to use the same instrumentation as Prokofiv did in Peter,” said Sharon. “Lars’s music, while brand new and unfamiliar to the audience, will make that important connection to our listeners.”

“The piano was my first instrument,” said Lars, “so that’s how ‘The Arc of My Life’ begins, with a note struck on the piano. And out of that fragment, my life develops.” A later interview with Lars will show how he composed his “Arc of My Life.”

The Downey Theatre is an acoustical gem no matter where you sit, and ample free parking surrounds the Theatre. Tickets for the January 19th concert are available now at the Box Office or go to

FeaturesLorine Parks