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Tragedy & Comedy in Mozart’s Concertos

K. 466 and K. 467 — at first glance this pair

of Mozart piano concertos listed adjacently in Kochel’s catalog looks

like a Tweedledum and Tweedledee combination. Pianist Jeffrey Swann,

who performs them with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) on

Friday, July 10, at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium, says that


the concertos were both composed in the same year — 1785 —

they are distinctly different.

The program, the first of three NJSO Amadeus Festival concerts


in Princeton, is conducted by music director Zdenek Macal and includes

Mozart’s Symphonies No. 26 and No. 28. The same program is scheduled

at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark on


July 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 11, at 8 p.m. The entire 1998

Amadeus Festival consists of five concerts, including a performance

of Opera Festival of New Jersey’s production of "Marriage of


at NJPAC, and a lecture there on "What Makes Mozart Great"

by Robert Kapilow. The NJSO Mozart festival, modeled on the


summer hit at New York’s Lincoln Center, is now in its fourth year.

Maestro Macal has declared his intention to survey the Mozart


as the festival returns year after year. Unconventionally, he has

been programming them in roughly reverse order, although Mozart’s

last symphony, No. 41, will be featured in the second week of this

season’s festival.

Swann played with Macal for the first time in Venice in 1977 in a

Chopin concerto, and they have performed together in various locations

since. Their last joint appearance was with the NJSO in 1996, playing

Ravel. "I love playing with Macal," Swann says. "He has

an extraordinary amount of energy and electricity. It’s always a


and energizing experience. I can’t conceive of a blase or routine

concert with him."

Interviewed from his home in Manhattan, Swann expands

on the close kinship between the two concertos he will play for the

Amadeus Festival program. "The concertos are a twinned pair,"

he says, adding, "they’re the first of the `Figaro’


During the years 1785 and 1786, when he composed the opera "The

Marriage of Figaro," Mozart also produced six of his most often

performed piano concertos. "K. 466 is in D minor," says Swann.

"It’s dramatic and grandiloquent, like `Don Giovanni,’ although

it has a happy ending. K.467, the `Elvira Madigan’ concerto, is in

C major. It’s festive, exuberant, upbeat, and riotously rich in


invention. It has a tuneful and touching slow movement. They present

two totally different emotional and dramatic types that cannot be

confused. They’re like a tragedy and a comedy. There are physical

similarities in the way the phrases fall under your fingers, but


underneath is very different."

"With any two Mozart concertos, there are always some things in

common — structure, passages, and themes. But these two concertos

have more in common than two Mozart concertos at random," says

Swann. "I can imagine that if I were playing 25 concerts in 27

days, playing K. 466 one night and K. 467 the next, I might be


enough to wonder `Where do my fingers go now?’"

Swann’s concert repertoire includes 50 concertos by various composers.

He divides them into three categories according to how performance

ready they are. In the first group are concertos about which he says,

"If I’m not doing anything else today, I could perform them


There are eight or ten of these. They’re concertos I learned with

my mother before I was 12. They stay with you. They also contain


of appalling fingering." In the second group are concertos that

Swann could have ready in a matter of days. He places the Mozart


in this category. In the third category are works that would need

two or more weeks preparation.

Swann locates most 20th century concertos in this third group.


you happen to have played them last week, no one would agree to play

them tomorrow. Mozart is easier to pull out of the depths of your

muscle memory than Bartok because the music is familiar."


of the 20th century rely less on standard technique than earlier


Mozart requires a mastery of standard technique — scales,


and arpeggios. "If you’ve got that mastered, you could learn a

Mozart concerto in a few days. A 20th-century concerto may not be

as difficult, but it relies on unfamiliar technique."

Now 46, Swann learned his piano basics from his piano-teacher mother.

He says that he grew up musically in Texas, primarily Dallas, his

mother’s home town. It was also the residence of his great


who Swann says was well-known as a cantor both in his native Lithuania

and in Dallas. Swann’s father comes from a family of farmers. The

pianist’s parents now live in Arizona, where his mother continues

to teach piano.

At 17, Swann came to New York to study at the Juilliard School, and

New York remained a primary residence for him, as he collected


master’s and doctoral degrees from Juilliard, winning competitions

along the way. His first major coup came in 1975 when he won first

prize in the Dino Ciani Competition sponsored by La Scala in Milan.

His prizes include a gold medal at the Queen Elizabeth Competition

in Brussels, as well as honors at the Warsaw Chopin, and the Van


contests, among others. He also won the Young Concert Artists


in New York.

Pointed unquestionably toward a concert career, Swann nevertheless

sought out academic training. "I got the doctorate for two


he says. "The first was a personal reason: I was very interested

in Wagner, and in writing about him. I was lucky enough to get


to write a thesis about him, which was difficult because I was a


Then there was a practical reason: staying at Juilliard gave me access

to a good Steinway grand. Another reason is my respect for education.

Actually, I have never ever used the doctorate. I have never had a

teaching job. But I give Wagner lectures sometimes, and have had an

article published in a music journal."

Despite his interest in Wagner, Swann’s heartfelt affinity is for

Italy. "Italy is my second home. Italian is my second being. I

have a whole life there. I have a home in Milan. I’m fond of Italian

culture and fluent in Italian," he says. Swann traces his


attitudes to his 1975 Ciani prize. The La Scala contest, he says


the competition that launched me."

Italian is only one of Swann’s languages. He handles

French and German fluently, and is at home in Spanish and Portuguese,

Russian, and Polish, and Hebrew, which he learned as a child. About

his latest linguistic acquisition, Swann says, "I can read and

write Chinese. I bore all of my friends with this. I have a problem

speaking Chinese because of the tones. I taught myself Chinese, but

you can’t teach yourself the tones." Still, he says, his spoken

Chinese is good enough for ordering in a restaurant. Devoted to his

hobby of learning languages, Swann takes a stance that is half


and half modesty when he compares himself with other linguists.


when you think you’re doing well with languages," he says,


meet somebody who is really good."

Swann sees a link between studying languages and learning music.


a fascination," he says, "in studying these. They’re not so

result oriented. Musicians are Talmudic — you never learn it,

you never finish. It’s a lifetime thing; you’re constantly delving

into it. Every time you pick up a language or music, you start from

the beginning."

Interestingly, Swann used the word "language" when he divided

the piano concerto literature into three categories, putting


compositions in the most demanding category. "The harmonic


he said, talking about the relative difficulty of 20th-century music,

"is a primary means of memorizing music. In 20th-century music,

the harmonic language is often obfuscated. It’s rare to play Mozart

or Beethoven with music, but using music is common with 20th-century

concertos." For Swann, the bottom line in mastering music


with knowing the music by memory, just as the bottom line in mastering

a language coincides with using the language by memory.

Swann sees problems for the pianist who thinks that using music will

prop up a shaky memory. "I have always played 20th-century piano

concertos by memory," he says. "Nothing is more dangerous

than occasionally looking at the music. If you have memory problems

with piano pieces, using the music is not going to help. With most

other instruments — flute or violin — there is no way to look

at the instrument while you’re playing, so you can stare at the music

and it doesn’t interfere with playing the instrument. With piano,

you can look at the keyboard while you play. When you look up at the

music and down at the keyboard, that’s when you get confused.

"With chamber music it’s important to have the music, not so much

to help you play, but so that if something goes wrong, someone can

find where you are," he says. "I feel that in a concerto,

the conductor should have the score. If I forget, I want somebody

to have the score." For Swann, the safety that comes from a score

in the hands of the conductor is a theoretical advantage; he has never

lost his place in performance.

Immediately after Swann finishes his summer concert stint, he returns

to a major recording project, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. Swann’s

next CD to be released contains the Liszt concertos, including the

E-flat concerto discovered 10 years ago, recorded with the Haydn


in Bolzano, in Italy’s South Tyrol.

Swann was once described as a Liszt specialist. "I think that’s

unfortunate," he says. "Whole seasons go by and I don’t play

any Liszt. I like doing lots of different things. I guess being


as a specialist is complimentary. Whatever people hear me do, they

might think I’m a specialist. Even conductors have a tendency to


a performer as an expert. If you play with a conductor, and have good

experience performing, say, 20th-century music, they’ll want you to

play that again. It’s the same with Mozart. Time is money. A lot of

conductors tend to do the reliable."

Be that devotion to efficiency as it may, in some circles Zdenek Macal

has demonstrated that he’s not interested in categorizing Swann as

a player with limited horizons. From his past record with Swann, it

is clear that Macal willingly gives him an opportunity to indulge

his interest in many kinds of music — even with two adjacent


concertos that are terribly different.

— Elaine Strauss

Amadeus Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, 800-ALLEGRO. Jeffrey

Swann, piano. Zdenek Macal conducts. $25 & $35. Friday, July 10,

8 p.m.

Also in the series: Andre Watts, piano, in Mozart’s Piano


No. 9, "Jeune Homme," with Zdenek Macal. Also Mozart’s


and Symphony No. 25. $25 & $35. Friday, July 17, 8 p.m.

Mozart’s quartets for Oboe and Flute, the Horn Quintet, and

the Duo for Bassoon and Cello. $25 & $35. Friday, July 31, 8


The festival concludes with Mozart’s "Requiem," with

the Pro Arte Chorale. Also Mozart Symphonies Nos. 23 and 24. $25 &

$35. Friday, August 7, 8 p.m.

NJ Transit is offering free round-trips by train or bus

to the Amadeus Festival performances in Princeton and Newark. Request

the Amadeus Package when ordering tickets.

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