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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
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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
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
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
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, 800-ALLEGRO. Jeffrey
Swann, piano. Zdenek Macal conducts. $25 & $35. Friday, July 10,
No. 9, "Jeune Homme," with Zdenek Macal. Also Mozart’s
and Symphony No. 25. $25 & $35. Friday, July 17, 8 p.m.
the Duo for Bassoon and Cello. $25 & $35. Friday, July 31, 8
the Pro Arte Chorale. Also Mozart Symphonies Nos. 23 and 24. $25 &
$35. Friday, August 7, 8 p.m.
to the Amadeus Festival performances in Princeton and Newark. Request
the Amadeus Package when ordering tickets.
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