The Princeton Symphony is an exuberant outfit, susceptible to adventurous programming, yet capable of finding ways to anchor its programs. Its next concert, for example, presents the virtually unknown “Praeludium” of Finnish composer Amas Jarnefelt and the rarely-performed Symphony No. 1 by English composer William Walton. Both Jarnefelt and Walton share connections to Finland’s well-known composer Jan Sibelius. Jarnefelt’s sister was Sibelius’ wife; Walton was influenced by Sibelius’ music. Music director Mark Laycock conducts the concert on Sunday, March 11, in Richardson Auditorium.
The two pieces with Sibelius links bracket a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 by Plainsboro-based Mariam Nazarian, a local celebrity who performed Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in Carnegie Hall at the age of 16 in 1999; she is now a graduate student at Harvard. Like the Princeton Symphony, Nazarian embraces adventure. For the first time she is supplying her own cadenzas for a concerto. They appear in the concerto’s first and third movements.
Mozart wrote Concerto No. 22 for his own use and left no written cadenzas. Intent on establishing himself in Vienna as a composer and performer, he appeared on the stage with a well-formed outline of the piece in his head, and followed the normal contemporary practice of improvising cadenzas and embellishments not indicated in the score. Nazarian points out, in a telephone interview from Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Mozart’s scores themselves are not fully fleshed-out. The composer sometimes used shorthand notations, indicating only the lowest and highest notes in a measure. In order to develop her own embellishments and cadenzas for the piece Nazarian consulted a photocopy of the original autograph available at the Harvard University Library.
“The cadenzas are a work in progress,” Nazarian says. “It’s very exciting to have an opportunity to do this. But I’m a little nervous about the project. I’m usually reluctant about putting things on paper that come from my imagination. I’m leaving some areas blank for extemporaneous improvisation at the concert. You can incorporate new ideas while you’re performing. Your mind has to work fast enough either in writing or in improvisation.”
Adding to Mozart’s material is a delicate balancing act. “I want to add embellishments,” Nazarian says. “But they have to be subtle and as much a part of the texture as possible. Anything that would make a passage stand out would be inferior. There are certain conventions and practices. You need to maintain the proper proportions. The cadenzas have to be less than one minute because the movements are so long.
“Imagination is OK,” Nazarian says, “but you have to use Mozart’s idiomatic language. I’ll observe the range of Mozart’s keyboard; that’s the first thing to take into account. Also, it’s important to use Mozart’s harmonies. You have to stay within those boundaries, but still make it interesting. I’ve consulted other cadenzas out of curiosity. I wanted to find out how it’s done, and how not to do it. Some cadenzas ignore the compass of Mozart’s keyboard and use unhistoric harmonies. Some are very virtuosic.”
Nazarian is not walking into the jungle of cadenza writing without a guide. Her mentor is Harvard’s Robert Levin, a pianist and Mozart expert. “He’s recorded the concerto,” Nazarian says, “but in class he comes up with a different version every time.”
Levin is known for restoring the lost practice of improvising embellishments and cadenzas in classical music. Writing for the Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood’s pioneering ensemble in the original instruments movement, Levin points out that Mozart’s contemporaries admired his talents as improviser, pianist, and composer, in that order. “His piano concertos contain contrived chasms — pauses he bridged with impulsive audacity. Further, Mozart left many passages in sketched or schematic form, relying on the whims of live performance to fill in the specific expressive content anew at each performance.”
Levin prescribes a thorough study of Mozart’s written score as preparation for improvising. “A spontaneous elaboration of the written text cannot be pasted on to the musical surface.” What is added must heighten the work and not consist of “a mere series of commonplace, banal conventions (a trill here, a curlicue there).”
Daring to improvise enhances a musical work, Levin says. “Today’s performers, shaped in the crucible of competitions and recordings, learn early to avoid risk as a threat to consistency and accuracy. There is nothing more risky than improvisation, but there is nothing more devastating to music’s dramatic and emotional message than avoidance of risk. This is not to say, however, that any kind of improvisation is better than none.” He warns against the musical equivalent of introducing the speech of rural Alabama into the work of 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Levin is one of three mentors who nurture Nazarian daily at Harvard. She mentions also Christoph Wolff, his Mozart seminar, and his expertise on Bach. In addition, there is Christopher Hasty, with whom Nazarian studies theory and analysis. “Levin is the pianist out of the three,” she says.
Nazarian is enrolled in Harvard’s graduate program in performance practice. “It’s an interdisciplinary program that tries to incorporate history and theory with performance,” she says. “Mostly, that sort of thing is done in conservatories. It opens up dry theory. You can analyze not just the way a piece is on paper but also the way it is performed. Performance has its own logic and helps explain a piece better than analysis based solely on the score and theoretical knowledge.”
She has not yet decided on a thesis topic. “I’m leaning toward Mozart and the Enlightenment or Schumann and literary theories of 19th century. I’d like to put the pieces I’ve played through a historical spectrum.”
Meanwhile, Nazarian welcomes the expansion of her musical horizons at Harvard. She is enthusiastic about her exposure to ethnomusicology, and delights in learning about the music of India, Asia, China, and Latin America.
Having graduated from New York’s Mannes College of Music, Nazarian is now studying piano on her own. Informally, she plays for her co-students at Harvard, and occasionally for professors and parents.
In April she gives two public solo recitals at Harvard, each with a different program. She will include works by composers Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy. “Harvard is stimulating,” Nazarian says. “It’s a friendly and welcoming community with lots of ideas. There are so many interesting people. I have a great circle of friends. They’re in all disciplines from mathematics to philosophy and they come from all over the world. There are opportunities for anything. I’m learning German. French is next. I have to pinch myself to believe that it’s happening.”
Nazarian, the daughter of two musicians, emigrated to the U.S. from Armenia with her family. Her father, Aram, is composer in residence at Princeton’s Trinity Church, where he has been setting psalms for voices and instruments. Her mother, Anna, teaches piano and theory privately and is particularly interested in communicating to students how to decipher a musical text so that they are able to sight-read easily. Nazarian’s sister, Hegine, 7 1/2 years her junior, is a high school student.
“It’s funny,” Nazarian says. “To a certain degree, I consider myself a citizen of the world. I was born in Armenia; I speak Armenian; I’m an Armenian citizen. But after living in the United States for 10 years, I feel American.”
Soloing as a concerto performer has been part of Nazarian’s background since her childhood. Her first public performance took place in Armenia at age eight in an early Mozart piece for piano and orchestra. She played the piece again at age nine in Russia’s St. Petersburg. Other concertos she has performed include works by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.
Nazarian’s repertoire includes about a dozen additional concertos. “It’s not so easy to perform them,” she says. “First, you’ve got to find an orchestra.” How nice that the Princeton Symphony is ready.
Classical Series, Sunday, March 11, 4 p.m., Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium. Program includes Jarnefelts’ Praeludium, Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 22, and Walton’s Symphony No. 1. Mariam Nazarium on piano. Gene DeLisa presents a pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $15 to $60. 609-497-0020.