Classical Notebook

Top Ten Musical Valentines

A ranking of composers’ musical gifts to their loved ones, from most romantic to just plain gross

1. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 – IV. Adagietto
Romance level: 10
Gross-out level: 0

One of music’s most famous symphonic love-letters, the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was written for the composer’s eternal sweetheart, Alma. The two were due to be married in about a year, and Mahler couldn’t bear to wait. The music is breathtaking from the start, beginning with the softest caress of string instruments and harp. The melody starts and stops, hesitating as if Mahler struggles to find just the right words, before moving to sweeping gestures that repeat three times, seeming to convey his impatience to begin their life together. Their relationship wouldn’t be without its troubles (understatement), but Mahler would dedicate many pieces to Alma, often scrawling her notes in the margins of his manuscripts. The score to his Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at his death, bore the inscription on its final page: “To live for you! To die for you!…Almschi!”

2. Béla Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1
Romance level: 9
Gross-out level: 1

Bartók’s First Violin Concerto sprung from his infatuation with the Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer. Each movement depicts different aspects of her personality: Bartók wrote that the first “idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward,” the second depicted a side to her character that was “cheerful, witty, amusing.” During composition, he wrote to her “One letter from you, a line, even a word—and I am in a transport of joy, the next brings me almost to tears, it hurts so. What is to be the end of it all? And when?” She had a firm answer for that last question, making it clear that she did not share the composer’s feelings (maybe it didn’t help that Stefi was 19 and Bartók was 26 when they met). He presented Stefi with the manuscript nevertheless, with “My Confession” written at the top, and the message “For Stefi, from the times that were happy ones. Although even that was only half-happiness.”

3. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Romance level: 8
Gross-out level: 2

A programmatic symphony that stunned the world of music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was fueled by his desire for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, together with copious amounts of opium. Berlioz fell in love with the actress after seeing her in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1827, and after penning numerous love letters that were met with no response, he plunged into composition of the massive symphony in a near-suicidal state. We literally hear his heart pounding in the first movement “Dreams, Passions”, together with a love melody that recurs throughout the symphony: the longing idée fixe. Things go downhill in the fourth movement “March to the Scaffold”, when he finds himself in an opium-fueled dream believing he has murdered his love, and he witnesses his own execution.  The symphony concludes with the nightmarish “Dream of Witches’ Sabbath”, which portrays satanic rituals through an opiate haze. Despite this twisted ending, Harriet would in turn fall in love with the composer when she finally heard the work in 1832, and the two would be joined together in a marriage that was ultimately unhappy and short.

4. Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations – Var. I “C.A.E.”
Romance level: 7
Gross-out level: 2

Elgar immortalized his friends, acquaintances, and one dog in his Enigma Variations, a work for large orchestra composed 1898-99. The original theme is thought to represent Elgar himself, and the first variation was dedicated to the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar. It features a repeating four-note melody that Elgar used to whistle while returning home. After her death, he wrote: “The variation is really a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions; those who knew C.A.E. will understand this reference to one whose life was a romantic and delicate inspiration.” But while the first variation was for his wife, the second-to-last variation is a beautiful hushed Romanze, featuring a cryptic quote of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. While all other variations are marked with initials as clues to the identity of the dedicatee, Elgar wished to keep this one is a secret, printing only ***.

5. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise
Romance level: 5
Gross-out level: 1

If you are a human, you have probably heard Beethoven’s treasured bagatelle Für Elise (For Elise) at some point. The short piece was discovered after Beethoven’s death and we don’t actually know who Elise is – in fact, Elise may actually be Therese, due to an error on the part of the transcriber. Beethoven proposed to a friend and piano student of his named Therese Malfatti in 1810. Or was the mysterious Elise actually the opera singer Elisabeth Röckel, who would go on to marry Beethoven’s composer rival Johann Nepomuk Hummel? Could there possibly be ties with the secret “Immortal Beloved” he addresses in his famous letter of 1812? We will likely never know.

6. Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor
Romance level: 4
Gross-out level: 4
Hear it on Classical KING FM Sunday, Feb. 14 at 1:05 PM

Dvorak’s sister in law Josephina became gravely ill during the composition of his Cello Concerto, and this motivated him to compose the second movement’s middle section based on her favorite melody of his Four Songs, Op. 82. The slow elegy just before the concerto’s finale is also based on another part of the same song, and was inserted just after she died. There may have been extra impetus for the composer to pen this moving tribute, however: he was in love with her 30 years earlier, and when she did not reciprocate, he ended up marrying her sister.

7. Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Romance level: 5
Gross-out level: 6

To say the least, Wagner had a troubled love life. His long marriage to the actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer was marred with a variety of affairs, the last of which was his relationship with Cosima, wife of the renowned conductor Hans von Bülow and 24 years his younger. Bülow had premiered a number of Wagner’s works, notably Tristan und Isolde; he only agreed to divorce Cosima after she ended up having two children with Wagner (named Isolde and Eva after the heroine of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger). As a birthday gift for Cosima and to celebrate the occasion of the birth of their third child, Siegfried, Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll and led a performance on the steps of their villa as she awoke on Christmas morning. Their son was of course named after the protagonist of the third opera of Wagner’s Ring series, of which the composer himself had written the story. In the Ring, this character was the son of Siegmunde and Sieglinde, who were twin brother and sister. And to think Cosima’s father, Franz Liszt, put up with this…

8. Richard Strauss: Sinfonia Domestica
Romance level: 4
Gross-out level: 7

This massive Strauss tone-poem is a depiction of a day in the composer’s family life, introducing a different theme for each family member and telling the story of the day’s domestic activities through music. After the baby is put to bed (complete with orchestral screams of resistance), the music graphically portrays a sexual encounter between Strauss and his wife Pauline, with the wife’s theme placed “on top” of the composer’s. Strauss’ program notes on this section are very specific, but maybe it’s best if you just use your own imagination:

9. Berg: Lyric Suite
Romance level: 2
Gross-out level: 8

Can twelve-tone music be romantic? Well, Berg certainly tried with his Lyric Suite for string quartet, which incorporated secret messages, spelled out in note names, to his mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (also married). It was discovered in 1977 that the piece’s structure was based on the notes A B (Alban Berg) and H F (Hanna Fuchs), and the movements outlined a secret love story that only Fuchs-Robettin would have understood from reading the score. The movements depict life before the illicit affair, the lovers’ first meeting (even identifying the presence of Fuchs-Robettin’s two children), a moment of passion (Trio estaticofollowed by an extended love scene replete with various allusions and heavy breathing. A reference to a phrase from Alexander Zemlinsky’s ”Lyric Symphony” links the work to a passage explicitly marked ”You are my own” in the other score’s manuscript. Berg’s wife Helene tried to conceal these scandalous references by restricting access to Berg’s music, but the Lyric Suite wasn’t even the worst: his Violin Concerto contains secret musical references to another woman, Mizzi, who secretly bore his child when the composer was still in his teens. This addition was possibly in poor taste given the concerto was actually a memorial work, dedicated “To the Memory of an Angel,” the 18-year-old daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler (who remarried after the death of Gustav). You can’t make this stuff up.

10. Leos Janácek: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” III. Moderato
Romance level: 3
Gross-out level: 10

Janácek’s crazed infatuation with Kamilla Stösslová, the wife of an antique dealer 36 years younger than Janácek, bordered on obsession. The composer sent Stösslová over 700 letters, and penned an entirely musical one with the third movement of his String Quartet No. 2. Janácek wrote to her: “It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist, in which there should be a suspicion of motherhood.” The music is in a dream-like state, rocking softly before crying out in a piercing scream. Stösslová, who inspired the creation of other Janácek works such as The Diary of the One who Disappeared, was not interested.

Geoffrey Larson is Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.

31 Facts About Mozart

1. He was a quick study. Mozart was so young when he wrote his first piece for violin and piano that he needed his father’s help—not to write the music, but to hold the pencil! It’s said that he was writing his own compositions by age 5.

2. He had big ambitions. Shortly after Mozart started composing, he got serious: he wrote a major mass and his first opera at age 12.

3. He and Haydn were friends. Haydn was already a famous and very respected composer when Mozart was still a child, but their age difference didn’t prevent the two legends from becoming friends later. Haydn praised Mozart endlessly in letters to friends and in conversation. He wrote to one friend, “If only I could impress Mozart’s inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the souls of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.” He often confided without bitterness that Mozart, not he, was the real genius of the age.

4. His father was a composer, too. Mozart may not have needed much help with his compositions at an early age, but his father certainly could have helped. Leopold Mozart was a composer before his famous son was even born, and later, he wrote a fair number of pieces inspired by little Wolfgang.

5. He was small. According to multiple biographers, Mozart was extremely short at about 5′ 4″. “He was a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine, fair hair of which he was rather vain,” said the tenor Michael Kelly. His complexion was uneven and blotchy, with marks left over from a childhood bout of smallpox. His speaking voice, according to his wife Constanze, was very high, but could be loud and commanding when Mozart wanted it to be.

6. He loved shopping. Mozart spent lavishly on beautiful clothing as an adult. Tenor Michael Kelly remembered one outfit he wore to rehearsal: “[He] was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra.”

7. He composed in short bursts throughout the day. Mozart didn’t spend his whole day composing; rather, he did a little writing in the morning, a little in the afternoon, and a little at night. He was quite a night owl and didn’t seem to need much sleep.


8. He made friends with all kinds of people. Franz Joseph Haydn was one of Mozart’s friends, but Mozart also knew countless other musicians, performers, aristocrats, and Salzburg residents who had a variety of jobs. Some of his closest friends were counts, scientists, and doctors.

9. He had lots of pets. Mozart had unusual taste in house animals. At different points in his life, he kept a canary, a starling, a dog, and a horse.

10. He had a strange sense of humor. The jokes Mozart told as an adult were similar to the jokes today’s young boys would laugh at. Some of Austria’s high society found his humor off-putting, especially when combined with his taste for fine clothing, but his true friends either had similar taste or found the jokes charming.

11. His compositions reached new heights. In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” or “The Vengeance of Hell Boils in my Heart.” reaches a high F, which in the opera of Mozart’s time was virtually unheard of. Operatic sopranos can sing very high, but few are up to the lofty challenge of this aria.

12. …And new lows. Though he’s less touted for it, he also composed one of the lowest arias in the history of opera in Abduction from the Seraglio. The aria calls for a bass soloist to sing a low D.

13. Mozart’s musical influences were numerous. Of course, Mozart’s first major influence was his own father, Leopold, who taught him how to play piano. But in his formative years, Mozart traveled all over Europe with his family to meet several composers. The most famous and probably most influential of them was Johann Christian Bach.

14. In turn, Mozart’s teaching influenced countless composers. Johann Nepomuk Hummel was probably Mozart’s most famous pupil, but the most famous story of Mozart as a teacher concerns Ludwig van Beethoven. As a teenager, Beethoven traveled to Vienna and stayed there for weeks trying to secure lessons from Mozart. Unfortunately, records show the two composers never met.

15. …And, apparently, countless babies. In the 1990s, a scientific study suggested that listening to Mozart’s music–specifically, his Sonata in D for two pianos–boosted spatial reasoning in humans more than verbal relaxation instructions or silence. The study was blown wildly out of proportion and began a phenomenon. Mozart for Babies became a major CD and book franchise as parents began to believe in The Mozart Effect, wherein their babies would become more intelligent later in life if they listened to Mozart as infants.

16. He wasn’t very organized. Mozart was terrible at keeping track of his compositions and even refused to write opus numbers or dates on his sheet music. Thank goodness, then, for Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, who later cataloged all of Mozart’s music, numbering them according to the order in which they were written and categorizing them by subgenre. No one had an idea just how much music Mozart wrote—not even the composer himself—until Köchel’s extraordinary cataloging work.

17. …But he could be a perfectionist. Scholars have evidence that Mozart spent huge amounts of time making tiny refinements to the instrumentation and dynamics of his manuscripts, revealing that he was quite picky when trying to find the right sound.

18. He was extremely prolific. Thanks to his abovementioned catalogue, we now know that Mozart composed more than 600 works in the three and a half decades of his life. His whole body of work includes 21 stage and opera works, 15 Masses, more than 50 symphonies, 25 piano concertos, 12 violin concertos, 27 concert arias, 17 piano sonatas, and 26 string quartets.

19. He was inspired by love. Mozart spent years courting Constanze before they were married, and we have a hunch his music gave him a leg up. When Mozart learned that Constanze loved Baroque counterpoint, he studied the work of Bach and Handel intently and wrote some of his own fugues for her. In addition, the beautiful soprano solo in his Great Mass in C Minor was written for Constanze, and she sang it at the Salzburg premiere.

Constanze 300

20. He had six children. Constanze Mozart gave birth to four sons and two daughters; unfortunately, only two of them survived past infancy. His oldest son, Karl, became an official for the Viceroy of Naples, and his youngest son, Franz Xaver, followed the family tradition of composing and teaching. Neither son ever married or had children.

21. He was related to Carl Maria von Weber. You wouldn’t guess it from their differing musical styles, but Mozart and Carl Maria von Weber were cousins by marriage. Mozart moved into Fridolin Weber’s Mannheim household as a lodger, and there he met Fridolin’s daughter and his future wife, Constanze. As Fridolin’s half brother raised Carl Maria in nearby Vienna, he had dreams of turning his son into a successful composer like Mozart. The two probably never met, as Weber was born just a few years before Mozart’s untimely death.

22. He always spoke his mind. Mozart worked regularly with Emperor Joseph II in his time as a composer. The emperor commissioned him to write the opera Abduction from the Seraglio, but when he heard the premiere, he complained it was “too fine for my ears–there are too many notes.” Without missing a beat, Mozart replied, “There are just as many notes as there should be.”

22. He always spoke his mind. Mozart worked regularly with Emperor Joseph II in his time as a composer. The emperor commissioned him to write the opera Abduction from the Seraglio, but when he heard the premiere, he complained it was “too fine for my ears–there are too many notes.” Without missing a beat, Mozart replied, “There are just as many notes as there should be.”

23. His music ripens bananas and brews sake to perfection. Food and drink companies all over the world claim that playing Mozart causes their products to grow, ripen, and brew better. We’re a little skeptical, but hey, a little Mozart never hurt anyone!

24. His wife loved him forever. Constanze survived her husband by more than 50 years, and after his death she married again and traveled throughout Europe. But even in these years, she worked tirelessly to promote Mozart’s music and preserve his legacy. After his death, she organized memorial concerts and helped publish some of his later works. Later, she and her second husband worked together on a Mozart biography.


25. He composed everywhere. Perhaps because he’d spent so much of his early childhood on the road, Mozart developed a talent for writing brilliant music anywhere and anytime–including at meals, at social gatherings with friends, and while his wife was in labor.

26. He spoke 15 languages. Great composers have always been citizens of the world, since their commissions and gigs take them to far-flung locations. Mozart traveled extensively not only as a child but also as an adult composer in high demand, and he picked up language skills in almost every country he visited. By the time he was a teen, he’d probably already picked up German, French, English, Dutch, and Italian, if not more.

27. He hated the trumpet. Everybody knows about Mr. Yuck, the green frowning face designed to warn young children about poisonous substances. When Mozart was a child, he had his own Mr. Yuck—the trumpet. His father Leopold recounted that “he (would) turn pale and begin to collapse at the mere sound of it.” It seems Mozart was only able to compose one piece for trumpet—although that’s disputed, because all physical evidence of such a piece is lost.

28. Salieri was not his murderer. Don’t believe what you watched in Amadeus: Antonio Salieri had nothing to do with Mozart’s death. When Mozart fell ill and told Constanze that he felt as though he’d been poisoned, Constanze knew better than to believe her sick husband in his delirium. Salieri himself fed the rumor mill when, after Mozart’s death, he confessed to having poisoned his colleague. It was later revealed that Salieri was in ill health when he made the confession.

29. Salieri also didn’t write Mozart’s Requiem. Scholars know that Mozart was not the sole author of his Requiem, which he couldn’t finish before his death. But we also know the primary co-author of the piece was not Salieri but Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a copyist for Mozart and one of Salieri’s students.

30. We’re still not sure how he died. If Mozart wasn’t poisoned, how did he die? Scholars still aren’t sure. Some believe it had something to do with Mozart’s chronic Vitamin D deficiency. Others blame medical malpractice and primitive, toxic medications. Still others believe it was a brain hemmorhage. But one of the most widely believed theories is that Mozart died of liver disease.

31. His legend lives on in other composers’ music. Though he never got those lessons he wanted, Beethoven heavily drew on Mozart’s music for inspiration in his own compositions. Countless composers over the centuries have paid homage to Mozart and his music, including Chopin, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Sor. Mozart continues to be one of the most enduring and influential composers in history.

Preview: Byron Schenkman and Friends

By Melinda Bargreen

Reviewers and fans have compared Seattle’s Byron Schenkman to everyone from Vladimir Horowitz to Jimi Hendrix. Schenkman is equally at home with a world premiere and an obscure work for early keyboards, but everything he plays has a common denominator: it has to be something he loves.

There’s a lot of music Schenkman loves, and Seattle listeners will get to hear a surprising variety of it as his brand-new series, “Byron Schenkman & Friends,” continues its run at the Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Hall. The opening program on October 6 had all the hallmarks of Schenkman’s chamber music: fresh and vital performances, solid ensemble playing, and a sense of spontaneity that fit well with the early and little-known Beethoven quartets on the program.

“My starting point is really picking my favorite music,” Schenkman reflected after the opening concert. “I’m most excited about finding players who will make it come to life. I want them to share my aesthetic sensibilities – and a sense of fun. After all, as the saying goes, we don’t work the piano, we play the piano.”

The pianist (who also is a harpsichordist and fortepianist) was delighted when two friends who are not regular concertgoers showed up for the October 6 series opener, and expressed their surprise that the concert was so much fun.

“There’s still this concept that classical music is supposed to be serious,” muses Schenkman. “I think of it as music I am on this planet to play.”

The opening concert, which included violinist Liza Zurlinden, violist Jason Fisher, and cellist Nathan Whittaker (all excellent), offered buoyant performances of three early Beethoven piano quartets, plus sonatas of Haydn (for solo piano) and Boccherini (for piano and strings). Up next: a November 24 program of Bach sonatas with Schenkman’s longtime duo partner Ingrid Matthews, a violinist whose wholehearted, richly nuanced performance style meshes particularly well with his.

Woodwinds will join in for the December 29 concert of Vivaldi concertos, also featuring works of Boismortier and Telemann.

In March, Schenkman and friends present a program of mostly Rameau works; the finale, on June 15, leaps more than a century forward with Schubert’s beloved “Trout” Quintet and “Arpeggione” Sonata.

What’s up for the second season? Schenkman hasn’t finalized his plans yet (check his website for future details), but he’s thinking about an evening of Robert and Clara Schumann, perhaps a program of Bach harpsichord concertos (and a Brandenburg). And a double-harpsichord concert whose intriguing title might be “Harpsichord Follies.” Hold onto your hats.


Geoffrey Larson on Hovhaness and Seattle

Left: Mt. Rainier. Right: Seattle Symphony Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz with Alan Hovhaness. (Photo: The Seattle Times)

The Pacific Northwest is permeated by natural beauty, a place where the mountains, forests, and sea intertwine with the furthest reaches of American civilization. The communities that reside in this place are highly diverse, with peoples of many cultures from the Pacific Rim and all around the world mixing together. The music of prolific Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) seems to observe nature in a hushed, reverential atmosphere, and evokes its grandeur and terrible beauty in soaring melodies and epic orchestral textures. Hovhaness’ music blends the sounds of different exotic cultures with those of his own heritage.  His compositions are so evocative of these Northwest features that it is no surprise he made Seattle his home in 1970 and resided here for the rest of his life. A closer look at Hovhaness’ unique musical aesthetic not only looks inside life in the Northwest but also shows a reverence for the universal human spirit.

The prolific compositional output of Alan Hovhaness numbers no less than 500 works: operas, ballets (a few choreographed by Martha Graham), choral works, songs, chamber music, and 67 numbered symphonies. His early music was scorned by Copland and Bernstein and the young composer faced setbacks. As he searched for his musical identity, he became fixated on the aesthetic of Armenian music, and changed his name from Chakmakjian (which no one could pronounce) to “Hovaness” and later “Hovhaness” with the emphasis on the second syllable, honoring the name of his Armenian paternal grandfather. Modal, folk-like melodies singing above low, droning sounds became central to his aesthetic. He was a pioneer of early semi-aleatoric music, where individual instruments within an ensemble would repeat a series of set patterns, uncoordinated and at different speeds. This created everything from a lush, soft cloud of sound that he called “spirit murmur” to thundering, cataclysmic orchestral sounds. Trips to Asia between 1959 and 1963 added the indigenous music of India, Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea to his aesthetic. A strong background of classical training added counterpoint to the mixture, and Hovhaness was one of the first American-born composers to bring cultural influences of Asia and Eastern Europe together into the composition of Western contemporary classical music. Hovhaness studied astronomy in his early life, and a fascination with the grandeur of planets, stars, and space crept into many of his musical works.

Just as Hovhaness’ music stood apart from other American aesthetics of his time such as serialism and Copland-influenced populism, his religious and political views separated him from his contemporaries.  Hovhaness’ youthful interest in meditation and mysticism was a profound influence on his music. The Greek mystic painter Hermon di Giovanno became a close, highly revered associate of Hovhaness and his pseudo-impressionist paintings could be found on the walls of Hovhaness’ residence throughout the composer’s life. Hovhaness called Giovanno “my spiritual teacher who opened the gate to the spiritual dimension.” His Sixth Symphony is named after a specific Giovanno painting, Celestial Gate. Hovhaness’ spiritualism caused him concern regarding the direction of American society, proclaiming in 1971:
“We are in danger of destroying ourselves, and I have a great fear about this … The older generation is ruling ruthlessly. I feel that this is a terrible threat to our civilization. It’s the greed of huge companies and huge organizations which control life in a kind of a brutal way … It’s gotten worse and worse, somehow, because physical science has given us more and more terrible deadly weapons, and the human spirit has been destroyed in so many cases, so what’s the use of having the most powerful country in the world if we have killed the soul?”
The composer’s spiritual views gave him a strong reverence for the natural world, and this tied Alan Hovhaness in part to the Northwest. Written shortly after his relocation to Seattle, his famous orchestral work And God Created Great Whales specifically called for recorded whale calls to be inserted into the performance. The austere darkness of Northwest weather that we see much of the year seems to color his music’s murky lyricism, and the towering mountains of Seattle’s impressive skyline seem to rise out of his epic brass writing and the gargantuan sound of his quasi-aleatoric passages. Gerard Schwarz recorded a number of his works with the Seattle Symphony, and Hovhaness’ music continues to be performed in the Northwest. Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs his Symphony No. 6 “Celestial Gate” on Saturday, June 7, 2014, continuing his legacy as a Northwest fixture. Rumor has it that on a rainy and cold Northwest day in the late 20th century, a thin, wizened figure could be seen in the food court at Southcenter mall, bent over a table full of score paper, composing his next mystic ode to the earth and its people.


Farms, parks, and islands: where to hear great music this summer

By Melinda Bargreen

One of the nicest Junes in recent history has arrived now, and local music lovers know what that means: Strawberries. Sun hats. And music festival time!

Only a few weeks away, the Olympic Music Festival’s opener on June 28/29 will pay tribute to founder and violist Alan Iglitzin, who started up this little gem of a festival three decades ago on a charmingly pastoral Olympic Peninsula site. Iglitzin, also the founding violist of the now-defunct Philadelphia String Quartet, realized in 1984 that the 55-acre dairy farm near Quilcene would be a great summer home for the quartet. The concerts and the concept grew into the current format, with afternoon concerts on Saturdays and Sundays from late June to mid-September, with familiar regulars and a few newcomers performing chamber music in the bucolic ambience of the barn.

The opening program will feature Iglitzin and five colleagues in two warmly romantic string sextets of Brahms.  The next concert pair gets jazzy for the Fourth of July, with Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue”; further along the horizon there’s a special concert for families (July 18-19), famed violinist Sarah Chang (Aug. 1-2), and a visit from another rising fiddler, Ray Chen, winner of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium (Sept. 5-6). Find out lots more here.

Seattle music lovers have been eagerly awaiting the July 6 start of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival, so expect some serious jockeying for tickets – especially when the likes of pianist Jeremy Denk, violinist/artistic director James Ehnes, and violinist Augustin Hadelich are in town. And the cellists! – nine of them, one great talent after another.

After some tinkering in recent years, the Summer Festival is settling into its former Monday-Wednesday-Friday mode, with pre-concert recitals and subsequent concerts in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. This year’s repertoire does not neglect the tried-and-true classics – plenty of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, from sonatas to the “Archduke” Trio – but there’s also an interesting twist: some unusual, and very great, vocal music.

In mid-festival, there’s a sequence of interesting vocal works, including Janacek’s seldom-heard but wonderful “The Diary of One Who Vanished” (for tenor and piano) and Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), as well as Respighi’s “Il Tramonto.” A July 25 Family Concert will feature pianist Andrew Armstrong in an audience-engaging program about creating pictures with music.

There’s an array of opportunities to hear the music: a live Volunteer Park concert, live concert broadcasts in other regional parks (“Music Under the Stars”), and – of course – the live radio broadcasts on your favorite station, Classical KING FM 98.1!

Farther to the north, the Bellingham Festival of Music will launch its 2015 season on July 3 with an appropriate piece: Handel’s “Royal Fireworks” Music – as well as a Mozart Symphony and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with soloist Vadim Gluzman. That ought to provide fireworks indeed.

Bellingham offerings include such landmark works as Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” (with soloist Katie van Kooten); the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Arnaldo Cohen; and Haydn’s great oratorio “The Creation.” There’s a chamber afternoon with the Calidore String Quartet on July 12. The artistic director is Michael Palmer; the festival runs July 3-19.

The following month, it’s the turn of the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, where artistic director Aloysia Friedmann and artistic advisor Jon Kimura Parker have scheduled a promising lineup for Aug. 6-22. Among the returning and new artists: the terrific Miro String Quartet, Oliver Aldort, cello; David Harding, viola; Desmond Hoebig, cello; Nathan Hughes, oboe; Lachezar Kostov, cello; Timothy McAllister, saxophone; Lorna McGhee, flute; Charlie Porter, trumpet; Orli Shaham, piano; Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, cello; Viktor Valkov, piano; and Sandy Yamamoto, violin.

There’s a children’s concert; a program for seniors, and some great repertoire, from a Russian-accented program to John Adams’ wild ride for two pianos, “Hallelujah Junction.” As usual, this one is well worth a scenic trip to Orcas Island. (A word of caution: this year, the Washington State Ferries system requires reservations on ferries from Anacortes to Orcas and back again. You can make reservations online here. Don’t just show up at the ferry dock, hoping to get on!)

“Believe It or Not” in Classical Music, 2013

Clockwise from top left: Michael Tilson Thomas passed out cough drops from the podium; a possible violin from the Titanic; The Magic Flute on a ship in Austria; erstwhile weapons turned instruments.

By Melinda Bargreen

As the calendar winds down for the year, we take a look backward at the more unusual news items in 2013. And in the last few weeks of December, may you enjoy these items just as much as we’ve enjoyed collecting them for you. Here goes:

— A Glass menagerie:  Composer Philip Glass does it again, polarizing fans and detractors with a new opera that is either “a great American opera and the only great L.A. opera,” or a work with “a vast emptiness at its heart,” depending on whom you read. The opera, called “The Perfect American,” which explores the last days in the life of Walt Disney, may not appeal to Disney fans: according to a reviewer of the work’s Madrid debut last January, the creator of Mickey Mouse is depicted as “arrogant, misogynist, racist, tyrannical, mean, ultraconservative, uncultured, hypochondriac and megalomaniac.”

— Classical health benefits: Dutch researchers have found that playing music may reduce your blood pressure and lower your heart rate. In a 2013 study of healthy young adults, those who practiced their instruments (piano, flute, voice, guitar) for 1.8 hours daily showed significant reductions in blood pressure. This was probably due to the musicians’ higher levels of “somatosensory nerve activity,” which “beneficially modulate the autonomic nervous system.”

— Don’t try this at home: A fire-eating stilt walker in last February’s “Die Meistersinger” at Chicago Lyric Opera ran into trouble during a dress rehearsal before an audience of about 1,000. Wesley Daniel, 24, was hospitalized but soon released after his fire-eating trick went awry. Press accounts said he was a stand-in for the original fire-eater, who stepped aside after his mustache got singed.

— Musical gun control: A British group, the Post War Orchestra, made headlines this year by turning weapons of war into musical instruments. So far they have an electric guitar made from two rifle carcasses; six Native American flutes made from Lee Enfield Rifles carcasses; and a lyre made from a World War II steel helmet, field radio antennae, and camouflage fabric. They also have an array of percussive instruments made from ammo boxes, empty shell cases, and steel jeep wheels covered with specially treated camouflage fabric. They’re devoted to making music out of war. Unfortunately, the project failed to make its Kickstarter funding goal, but the group is still actively seeking support.

— Was it the Titanic violin … or not? Experts are still arguing over the claim that surfaced last March, when a violin found seven years ago in an attic in Bridlington, UK, supposedly had proven “beyond a doubt” to belong to Titanic ensemble leader Wallace Hartley and to have been gone to the briny deep with him when the vessel sank. The water-stained violin has been exhaustively analyzed by forensic efforts, and it now is cautiously referred to in press reports as “A violin thought to have been played by the band leader on the Titanic as the vessel sank.” In October, that violin was claimed for $1,454,400 at auction in London.

— And you think you’ve ever been embarrassed before: How’d you like to be tenor Lance Ryan, who was supposed to star in an April production of Wagner’s Siegfried at the highly regarded Berlin Staatsoper, but failed to appear in time for the (unusually early) 4 p.m. start? Someone should have told Siegfried about the early curtain. As it happened, an announcer arrived on stage just before curtain time to declare: “We don’t know where our lead tenor is.” Ryan did appear in time for Act II, after the company had improvised by asking another tenor (Andreas Schager) to sing the first act from the wings while a costumed company member went through the motions. Ach du lieber.

— Oh, those Germans! In a country famous for (let’s say) creative reinterpretations of opera, they may have gone a bridge too far in Düsseldorf, where a Nazi-oriented presentation of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” distressed some patrons so much that some required medical assistance. In this production, Tannhäuser, dressed in an SS uniform (he is intended by Wagner to be a medieval traveling minstrel) shaves the heads of and executes an entire family by stripping them and shooting them individually in the neck. In one scene, naked performers came onto the stage in smoke-filled gas chambers to kill the character Venus, dressed as an S.S. officer. In another, the character Elisabeth was brutally raped by Tannhäuser’s rival Wolfram and left bloodied and crying on stage. Oddly, we didn’t find any of that in Wagner’s meticulous instructions in the opera’s score.

— And oh, those French! A Paris Opera production of “Aida” in October was loudly booed from start to finish, despite good performances from conductor Philippe Jordan and the orchestra. Director Olivier Py gave operagoers a show they won’t forget: a young man waving the Italian flag was brutalized during the overture, while the rest of the show offered machine guns and tanks, racist demonstrators during the “Triumphal March,” and a trial of Radames by the Ku Klux Klan.

— Too much Dolly Parton:  Evidently you can get thrown off a commercial flight if you refuse to stop singing … especially if you are singing “AY-eee-ay-eee-ayyyy will always love youuuuuuu.” A woman on a May 9 American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York was “disruptive” and “refused to stop singing,” and the flight diverted to Kansas City. Her favorite song: “I Will Always Love You,” the Dolly Parton tune made famous by Whitney Houston in the movie “The Bodyguard.” You can bet the other passengers caught this one on video.

— A tough year for street musicians in Atlanta: First it was the violinist. Johnny Arco (stage name for Juan Pablo Chavez), who was doing a little busking in the train station. He spent five days behind bars for “misdemeanor panhandling” and “vending without a permit” for selling CDs. Then a trombonist, Eryk McDaniel, who was playing for patrons entering a Braves stadium in Atlanta as the crowds entered … until he was arrested and cited.

“I was in jail. I’ve never been in jail. What you do? I played trombone,” said McDaniel.

McDaniel says his attorney told him he’s allowed to play on the city’s streets because there’s an exception in the law for musicians, but he’s not allowed to ask for money.

McDaniel says he never said a word, but police said because he had his case out, that was enough for the arrest.

Honestly. Things are a little better in Ocean City (Maryland); read on:

— Violinist William Hassay, Jr., who has played in professional orchestras, was arrested for making “excessive noise” while busking on the Ocean City boardwalk. He went to court and won the right to busk – as well as $21,000 in lost income, plus $105,000 in attorney fees and $11,000 in court costs — for infringement of his freedom of speech rights.

— A “Magic Flute” with Rhinemaidens? No, it was just a nautical misadventure at Austria’s Bregenz Opera last summer, when a boat on a floating stage overturned with some of the “Magic Flute” principals aboard. After a half-hour delay, the singers – soaking but still game – continued the show. The Queen of the Night, Kathryn Lewek, had to be rescued because it was impossible to swim in her costume (three skirts, two layers of bodice, two mic units and a heavy horned helmet).

— Finally, don’t you hate it when a beautiful evening at the Symphony is interrupted by fortissimo coughing and hacking from the audience? So does conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. When his opening concert with the Chicago Symphony playing Mahler’s Ninth was plagued by loud coughing, he came prepared the following night. After the first movement was punctuated by even more coughing, Tilson Thomas went offstage and emerged with large handfuls of cough lozenges, which he tossed underhand into the main floor audience seats – urging audience members to pass them on to those who needed cough drops. The listeners responded with laughter and applause (and a little less coughing).

Review: Joshua Bell in recital at Benaroya Hall

By Melinda Bargreen

In today’s pantheon of concert violinists, Joshua Bell occupies a place near the top – and his Benaroya Hall recital with pianist Sam Haywood demonstrated again why Bell deserves his acclaim.

The recital program offered three important works: Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill” Sonata (Op. 1, No. 10), Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major (Op. 90), and Stravinsky’s “Divertimento for Violin and Piano” (after “The Fairy’s Kiss”). The playing was “gold standard” in quality: beautiful, unforced tone; lyrical interpretations; technique that made even the trickiest passages sound easy.

He is fun to watch, too, with a charismatic stage presence that rivals any virtuoso performing today.

Bell can play bravura passages with the best of them, but he knows when to back off – when, for example, to let the Tartini sonata float like a butterfly. (His pianist knows this, too, and follows Bell like his own shadow.) The Beethoven sonata emerged with a sunny, golden tone quality, in phrasing that was pliant and flexible, and lines that were precisely sculpted. In theAdagio espressivo movement, Bell’s tone was almost piercingly sweet, with an arresting quality that was completely different from the three surrounding movements.

The Stravinsky piece, with its balletic origins and vividly colorful soundscapes, was pure pleasure – from plaintive folk melodies to jolly peasant dances, broadly melodic movements, and even a feisty tango. Bell drew a full range of colors and styles with his bow, tossing aside the technical challenges and making them sound easy. This Divertimento represents Stravinsky at his most charming, and Bell made the strongest possible case for the music.

Not surprisingly, the program’s conclusion brought a vigorous ovation that demanded encores. Bell’s response was refreshing: a brief chat with the audience, complimentary to both Benaroya Hall and the victorious Seahawks (who had been greeted that day by more than 700,000 fans upon their return to Seattle). Bell said he and Haywood had prepared two encores, and identified them in advance: no awkward business about whether a continuing ovation merited still more returns to the stage. They offered up Tchaikovsky’s charming “Melodie,” all nobility of tone, and then Wieniawski’s aptly named “Polonaise Brilliante,” performed in a grand virtuoso style that brought down the house. Bravi!

Our Guide to the Best Christmas Concerts in Seattle

The Northwest Boychoir sings A Festival of Lessons and Carols, a regional favorite.

By Melinda Bargreen

This is the time of year when thoughts turn to the festive season ahead – and all the musical opportunities to get into the holiday spirit. From the ancient melodies of the Middle Ages through the new strains of the 21st century, Northwest concert venues offer local residents a rich assortment of great seasonal music. Spanning the sublime and the happily ridiculous, there’s truly something for everyone.

First of all, if we’ve missed your group, our fervent apologies. The Northwest boasts so many excellent choral and instrumental ensembles that including every single one in each community would require the resources of a directory. An excellent choral website,, has a wealth of concert details for this season and the months to come. We’ll hit a few of the “high notes” below.

Let’s start at Benaroya Hall, where the region’s biggest concert presenter, the Seattle Symphony, has a cornucopia of holiday fare on tap – starting with “Holiday Pops with Cirque Musica” (Dec. 6-7). Pops-meister Jeff Tyzik will be on the SSO podium for orchestral concerts with Cirque Musica – acrobats, jugglers, dancers, and mimes – performing along with the music.
Immediately afterward, the SSO presents “Christmas with The King’s Singers,” featuring the ultra-talented British a cappella male ensemble that has won a long string of prizes and awards over the past decades. Their delicious Seattle program on Dec. 8 ranges from works of Lassus and Praetorius to international carols (from “In dulci jubilo” to Herbert Howells’ celestial “A Spotless Rose”). (The orchestra does not play in this concert of close-harmony vocals.)

And then there’s Handel’s ever-popular “Messiah,” presented annually by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale – this time with guest conductor Cristian Macelaru (associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra) on the podium, and renowned Northwest-born soprano Heidi Grant Murphy topping the soloist roster. There are three performances at Benaroya Hall, beginning Dec. 19.

The biggest choral presentation is the annual Seattle Men’s Chorus holiday show – this year, the group’s 35th, it’s called “Our Gay Apparel” – which will be staged seven times in Benaroya Hall from Nov. 29th through Dec. 22. (If you’re around for the first two performances Nov. 29-30, you’ll also hear guest artist Linda Eder.) Dennis Coleman conducts the holiday celebration, which includes serious traditional fare along with hilarious new “adaptations” of Christmas classics. There’s always a sing-along of traditional carols, with the audience joining in. And if you can’t make it to downtown Seattle, there are two outreach performances: Dec. 4 in Tacoma’s Pantages Theater, and Dec. 20 in Everett’s Civic Auditorium.

Another popular favorite: “A Festival of Lessons and Carols,” the traditional English holiday observance interspersing readings and carols, returns with the combined singers of the Northwest Boychoir and Vocalpoint! Seattle (Joseph Crnko, conductor), plus members of the Northwest Sinfonia. The two final 2014 performances are set for Dec. 22 in St. Mark’s Cathedral, and Dec. 23 in Benaroya Hall. These are the capstone of a series of regional performances of the “Festival of Lessons and Carols” that will take the young singers all over the Northwest map.

Among this season’s Northwest Girlchoir performances is the Dec. 5 “Winter Wonder” concert, at 7:30 p.m. in Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church – where you’ll here not only repertoire from Latvia, Finland, and Norway, but also new works of Reginald Unterseher and Karen P. Thomas. And the Seattle Girls Choir has set Dec. 13 (1:30 p.m.) as the date for “A Gift of Song,” their holiday concert in Town Hall with Jacob Winkler conducting. The same venue will host the Columbia Choirs’ Yulefest concert, at 1 p.m. Dec. 6, with carols, holiday favorites, and international tunes. The Columbia Choirs family have two more holiday concerts: “Lessons and Carols” at 7 p.m. Dec. 3 in Bothell First Lutheran Church, and “Noel” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 in Lake Washington United Methodist Church.

Hildegard of Bingen.

Stepping back into the Middle Ages with the Medieval Women’s Choir, director Margriet Tindemans has devised a program called “Fountain of Life” in celebration of the ensemble’s 25th season. The program, also featuring MWC instrumentalists, spans works of the remarkable medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen and a brand-new commissioned work by Seattle composer/conductor Karen P. Thomas, at 8 p.m. on Dec. 20 in the sonorous environs of St. James Cathedral.

The Seattle Choral Company returns to St. Mark’s Cathedral at 8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 19 for “On Christmas Night,” a program of carols, new and old music, and narration. The Resonance Handbell Choir and the cathedral’s Flentrop Organ will provide instrumental assistance, and the wide-ranging repertoire spans traditional carols and Dolly Parton (“Light of a Clear Blue Morning”), with the premiere of a new work by Edward Henderson. Freddie Coleman conducts, and also offers a lecture an hour before start time. A carol sing-along, accompanied by the cathedral organ, starts at 7:30 p.m., a half-hour before the concerts.

Noted for their international holiday concerts, Seattle Pro Musica – a past winner of the American Prize for choral excellence – turns to France this season for a program of Christmas motets by Poulenc and Pierre Villette. You’ll also hear French Renaissance Christmas music, new works, and traditional carols. Karen P. Thomas conducts three performances: Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in First Baptist Church (1111 Harvard Ave, Seattle), and 3:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 in the Bastyr University Chapel (14500 Juanita Drive NE, Kenmore). They’ll also offer a one-hour Family Holiday Concert at 3 p.m. Dec. 6, also at First Baptist Church of Seattle, with French chef Thierry Rautureau, the “Chef In The Hat,” joining in.

Choral Arts, also a first-place American Prize winning chorus, presents two concerts with director Robert Bode of their signature holiday program: an hour-long, uninterrupted flow of beautiful carols and Christmas-themed choral works, with Bob McCafferty-Lent knitting everything together via guitar interludes that link the various pieces. It’s an oasis of calm beauty amidst the bustling holiday season. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 in Seattle’s Trinity Parish; Dec. 14 in Seattle’s St. Joseph Parish.

This year, the Northwest Chamber Chorus is bringing back its beloved presentation of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” with David Pichette as narrator. The program will also offer carols of Alfred Burt, Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël, works by several contemporary composers, and the group’s traditional Christmas carol sing-along. There are two performances for this popular classic: 3 p.m. Dec. 7, and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13, both in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church.

Opus 7.

“Shining Rose of Heaven,” the Opus 7 choral program set for Dec. 13 (8 p.m.) in St. James Cathedral, will focus on music written by, and about, women. Founder/director Loren Pontén, who has commissioned more than 25 new choral works, will lead his singers in contemporary and classic pieces. Opus 7 was the 2013 winner of The American Prize for community choral excellence.

The busy conductor Mark Adrian has two choruses each presenting three concerts of holiday repertoire. Cantaré presents “In the Fields Abiding” (with angel- and shepherd-themed music) in three different locations Dec. 5-7 (see, and Adrian’s Sacred Music Chorale offers “So Fair and So Bright” spanning Pergolesi, Mendelssohn, and carols of all kinds, also in three locations Dec. 12-14 (see

Seattle Baroque Orchestra
Seattle Baroque Orchestra

There’s plenty more going on in the orchestral/instrumental realm, too. On Dec. 6, the Seattle Baroque Orchestra presents a “European Christmas Potpourri” at 8 p.m. in Seattle’s Town Hall, with Handel’s “Gloria,” the Corelli Christmas Concerto, and other baroque-era holiday themed music, with Eric Milnes as director and Hélène Brunet, soprano soloist.

Internationally acclaimed Pacific MusicWorks will present Cantatas 1, 3, and 6 of one of the great seasonal classics, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, at 8 p.m. Dec. 19 in St. James Cathedral. Co-produced with Early Music Vancouver, this performance will showcase four vocal soloists: soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Zachary Finkelstein, and baritone Sumner Thompson.

Orchestra Seattle, with Clinton Smith conducting, presents a Holiday Pops concert with the ever-popular Leroy Anderson “Sleighride,” a Suite from “The Polar Express,” selections from the Shaw/Bennett “Many Moods of Christmas,” and other favorites, starting at 2 p.m. Dec. 6 in First Free Methodist Church. The orchestra’s choral partner, Seattle Chamber Singers, reprise their popular “Messiah” production at 3 p.m. Dec. 21 in the same location.

The Tallis Scholars.

If you missed all this pre-Christmas hoopla (and even if you didn’t), the Tudor Choir presents a promising Dec. 27 classical holiday program called “Christmas Day” that also marks the release of the group’s new all-English Christmas CD. It starts at 7:30 p.m. in Blessed Sacrament Church, preceded by the popular lighting of the church’s 30-foot Christmas tree. The Tudors also get in ahead of the seasonal game by presenting the outstanding Tallis Scholars in an Advent concert of Byrd, Desprez, and Turgez on Dec. 4, at Blessed Sacrament Church.

And finally, on Dec. 28 the fifth annual series of Candlelight Concerts, organized by flutist Jeffrey Cohan, will conclude with “Jazzin’ with the Classics for Christmas” at 7:30 p.m. in University Christian Church. The program unites the worlds of classical and jazz music with a holiday twist.

New Year’s Eve and the Ninth

Photo © Busalacchi Restaurants

By Melinda Bargreen
For Seattle classical music lovers, New Year’s Eve is not about Dick Clark or Guy Lombardo – it’s all about Ludwig van Beethoven. The Seattle Symphony’s now-venerable tradition of presenting Beethoven’s majestic Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony to bring in the New Year continues this Dec. 31 with British-born guest conductor Matthew Halls on the Benaroya Hall podium. And because the Ninth itself – while clocking in at a mighty 67 minutes – isn’t the length of a complete Symphony program, they’re adding a Mozart side dish: the three-movement “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), composed during the 22-year-old composer’s sojourn in the City of Light.

The subject of articles, chapters, and indeed several books, Beethoven’s Ninth occupies a unique place in the symphonic canon. The final movement, in which the chorus and four vocal soloists join in with the “Ode to Joy” and the promise that “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men will become brothers) has become an international anthem of freedom. It was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall, broadcast at Tiananmen Square, performed during the Pinochet era by Chilean dissidents, featured at the Olympic Games and claimed as an anthem by the European Union, and chosen by orchestras everywhere to celebrate special occasions.

The Ninth is particularly beloved in Japan, where hundreds of performances take place annually — often in December, and memorably after the 2011 tsunami. (It also has served more sinister purposes: the Ninth was a favorite of Hitler, who particularly liked to hear it on his birthday.)

More recently, the Ninth has been the focus of an iPad app and a documentary (“Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony”).

Even before its premiere in 1824, it was clear to the music-loving public that the Ninth Symphony was going to be something special. Beethoven originally considered premiering the Ninth in Berlin instead of Vienna, but in Berlin. Hearing that this move might take place, Austrian aristocrats and music lovers petitioned Beethoven to keep the premiere in Vienna (the petition was published in two leading Viennese newspapers).

By 1824, Beethoven was totally deaf, and although he coached the soloists and set the tempo, and was present on the stage for the premiere, the real direction of the orchestra fell to conductor/violinist Michael Umlauf (with concertmaster Ignaz Schuppanzigh). According to some reports, when the final chords were greeted with a tremendous ovation of which the composer was unaware, the contralto soloist Caroline Unger turned him around to face the cheering audience.

According to a review from Allegmeine Theater-Zeitung (May 13, 1824): “Imagine the highly inspired composer, the musical Shakespeare, to whom all means of his arts are readily available at the slightest nod, how he glowed from devotion and how in the innermost belief in the holy work of redemption, he sings the praise of God and the hope of Mankind. Then one has, perhaps, a slight notion of the impact of this Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei!”

The noted Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford once concluded a discussion about the meaning of the Ninth with the following passage: “When the bass speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, the words come from Beethoven, not Schiller. It’s the composer talking to everybody, to history. That’s what’s so moving about those words. There Beethoven greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.”

Glasses will be raised at Benaroya Hall, too, as audiences on Dec. 31 hear this year’s reincarnation of Beethoven’s masterpiece.  Conductor Matthew Halls will be joined by soloists Rena Harms, Deborah Nansteel, Eric Neuville, and Morgan Smith, as well as the Seattle Symphony Chorale, for the 9 p.m. performance, which will conclude with a post-concert party featuring dancing to a live band, and a countdown to midnight.

Those with other plans for New Year’s Eve may want to attend one of three weekend performances of the same program (minus the post-concert dancing): 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 2 and 3), and 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 4). For tickets and program notes, consult, or call the Benaroya box office at 206-215-4747. And a very happy New Year to you!

Ten Reasons Why Mozart is the Greatest

Does January’s birthday boy deserve his place in history? We present solid video and audio evidence.

He’s sold more albums than Beyoncé, he’s one of the top three most-performed composers of all time (potentially No.1 in 2015!), and he’s been dead 225 years. His music is beloved by listeners and performers new and old, but every Mozart fan has had to endure shouts of “Boring!” and “Sounds the same!” from across the aisle. So why are we still enamored after more than two centuries? Here are ten reasons why Mozart is one of the greatest of all time.

1. He composed masterfully in every musical format.
Operas, choral works, concertos, symphonies, chamber music, solo songs, sonatas… Mozart was one of the few composers in history to compose masterworks in every conceivable musical genre. Though his output is highly varied, each piece exudes a bold, self-assured confidence and that is instantly recognizable. He wrote solo works (sonatas and concertos) for nearly every instrument of his time (sorry, trumpets). All are considered cornerstones of each instrument’s repertoire – and when he features two solo instruments with orchestra at once, the magic increases exponentially. Just listen to the bold opening of his Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for violin and viola, and revel in the elegance and combined passion of the two solo instruments:

2. He was a master of dramatic timing.
Mozart’s operas are timeless works, featuring perfect dramatic pacing, lifelike characters, and humanistic themes that make them seem fresh and relevant even in the modern era. A sense of drama is present not just in Mozart’s great operatic works, but in all his music, from the piano sonatas and string quartets to his symphonies. Listen to how Mozart paces the action in the climactic scene from Don Giovanni, where the Don is confronted by the ghost of the Commendatore who he murdered in Act I (one of the greatest opera entrances of all time). In the midst of the darkness and terror of this scene, Mozart masterfully incorporates the comedy of the sidekick Leporello’s blurting interjections. Spoiler alert: the ghost demands Don Giovanni repent and relinquish his lascivious ways, and when Giovanni refuses, we hear the trombones and a ghoulish chorus literally dragging him down to hell:

3. He was a melodic genius.
Mozart had a knack for churning out memorable melodies nonstop. Check out the performance of the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat above – how many sing-able melodies do you hear in the space of just the first five minutes? Some of these have gone down as some of the most beautiful of all time, such as the breathtaking Adagio from his Clarinet Concerto. Many of his contemporaries wrote wonderful tunes as well, but one of the secrets to the uniqueness of Mozart’s music is how he was able to vary his melodies, transforming them in fascinating ways. Listen to pianist, composer, and conductor Rob Kapilow break down how Mozart is able to take a melody built from one simple element (from his String Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K. 516) and vary it to powerful effect:

4. He was writing symphonies when you were playing with stuffed animals.
Mozart’s first compositions were short keyboard works produced at the tender age of five years old. His first symphony came just three years later. Even in its simplicity, it’s packed with action: proud fanfares, surprisingly soft and intimate (and occasionally dissonant!) moments in the midst of fast music, Sturm und Drang… you name it. The innocence, cheekiness, and innate romance of this music can be heard throughout Mozart’s works, even his most mature later pieces.

5. His total musical output is staggering, and he only lived to 35.
How many pieces did Mozart write in his short lifetime? We don’t know for sure, but it’s at least 626. Part of the explanation for this massive output was his ability to compose incredibly quickly – his celebrated Symphony No. 36 “Linz” and No. 38 “Prague” were each written over the course of a few days. Not only that, he composed without error or need for revision: while the manuscripts of other great composers are full of scratched-out passages and nearly unintelligible scribble (cough, Beethoven), Mozart’s are strangely pristine, as if the entire work was laid out in divine perfection in his head and he just copied it down. He could compose anytime, anywhere; he penned his 12 Horn Duets, K. 487, one evening in a bowling alley. On the first page of the manuscript he scribbled: “Vienna, 27 July 1786 while playing skittles” (an early form of duckpin bowling).

6. He was a rock star on keyboard and stringed instruments.
From about the age of six to seventeen, Mozart and his sister were taken by his father on tour throughout Europe, performing on piano and violin. He came to be well-known as one of the greatest child prodigies of his time, capable of playing nearly anything on keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and organ and more or less equally capable on violin and viola and with his voice. He transfixed audiences far and wide, performing concertos he had written himself, like the immortal C minor Piano Concerto:

7. He excelled at combining musical styles foreign and local, old and new, sacred and secular.
The well-traveled Mozart was rumored to speak about 15 languages and was highly aware of musical styles from all over Europe. Like Bach before him, he masterfully incorporated these foreign fashions into his own body of work. In Italy, he experienced the comedic mastery of opera buffa; in Mannheim, Germany, he discovered exciting new orchestral effects such as the “Mannheim rocket”; and in Paris, he experienced the loud, boisterous style of large French court orchestras. He was a devout Freemason, and used sacred chorale melodies in surprising settings, like his opera The Magic Flute. Listen to this overture from his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, set in a Turkish harem – featuring the pounding of military percussion like a Janissary army, it would have sounded fashionably exotic to Viennese audiences in 1782.

8. His sense of humor was…unique…
Mozart’s famously lewd humor is well documented not just in his letters (he wrote to his sister in 1770, “I am happy from the bottom of my arse… I kiss Mama’s hand as well as my sister’s face, her nose, her mouth, her neck, my poor pen and the arse if it is clean”) but also in his music. The following piece is one of a couple that would have been sung by Mozart and his friends in the bar:

9.…but he also composed works of great seriousness and emotional depth.
Mozart’s family life was wracked with financial hardship and tragedy – he lost his mother at a young age, and only two of his eight children survived infancy. His music portrays all the highs and lows of life experience, and shows a character that is fascinatingly complex. It’s impossible to argue which of Mozart’s pieces is the most soulful. Is it the balance of comedy and death-defying drama in his uncategorizable opera Don Giovanni? The supreme elegance and chromaticism of his Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor? The majesty of his final symphony “Jupiter” with its massive fugal finale? For many, it’s hard to top the emotional depth of Mozart’s immortal Requiem, which lay unfinished at his death in 1791. The Requiem represents the height of the composer’s mature style and undoubtedly stands as one of the greatest monuments to human creativity. Listen as an opening plaintive melody winds its way to massive pillars of sound, heralding a chorus that seems to put Mozart face-to-face with his creator:

10. He was revered by the composers of his time and was inspirational to many others throughout history.
As Wagner said, “the most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.” Haydn wrote, “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” Beethoven, who had traveled to Vienna in 1787 seeking composition lessons with Mozart (they may never have actually met), paid homage to Wolfgang with the 18th Century version of a remix. Beethoven’s adulation of Mozart was shared by many others, but perhaps none more prominently than Tchaikovsky. The Russian composer references Mozart in a few of his works, but most directly in the Suite No. 4 “Mozartiana,” which makes use of Mozart’s famous Ave verum corpus in its third movement:

In 2016 and beyond, Mozart may be decomposing (sorry) but he shows no sign of slowing down. His indomitable character has been woven into our popular culture, from a major Academy Award-winning motion picture to a Golden Globe-winning series. His music remains a core part of the repertoire of every major opera house, symphony orchestra, string quartet, and solo performer. It’s easy to get your Mozart fix: join us as we celebrate this great composer with 31 Days of Mozart, all through January on Classical KING FM, and check out our exclusive Mozart Channel.