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Mystery music: Juneau Symphony performs 2 works with disputed lineage

Posted: Thursday, April 07, 2005

In the wake of the October 2003 performance of "Beethoven's Ninth," and the debut of the 85-member Juneau Symphony Chorus, the Juneau Symphony started to consider other works with which to combine an orchestra and a giant chorus.

Mozart's "Requiem," the masterpiece that he left unfinished when he died in 1791, was an obvious choice.

"The Beethoven was really about the orchestra, and the chorus just joins in," conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett said. "The Mozart is really about the chorus. The orchestra is the foundation, but 'Requiem' is really about singing and every movement is a choral movement or a solo movement. It's a lot more dramatic in a way, and it's portraying a text the whole time."

The symphony's chorus includes about 120 members, most of whom have been rehearsing since February under chorus rehearsal conductor William Todd Hunt. The piece, the second half of the show, is 50 minutes long and sung in Latin.

Joyce Parry Moore (soprano), Cathy Pashigian (alto), Dan Wayne (tenor) and John D'Armand (bass) are the soloists.

Performances begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 10. A concert conversation will start an hour before each show. Advance tickets are available at Hearthside Books or online at www.juneausymphony.org. For more information, call 586-HORN.

KTOO-FM will broadcast Sunday afternoon's 3 p.m. performance live. For more information, visit http://www.ktoo.org.

The program will begin with Johannes Brahms' 1873 "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," a 17-minute, eight-variation piece based on a light, instrumental composition for winds, the "Chorale St. Antoni."

Brahms often riffed on themes, trying to create something new. He published variations on Paganini (1862-63), Handl (1861) and Schumann (1854).

"Each variation is really interesting and showcases a different part of the orchestra with a rather constant changing of mood and attitude and idea," Pickett said. "But it was also really important that we wouldn't somehow conflict or take away from the 'Requiem.'"

A year ago, Pickett saw the San Jose Symphony perform a Brahms' piano concerto in the first half of a program featuring "Requiem." The piano was so powerful, he couldn't get the concerto out of his head during the second half of the show.

Ironically, the "Chorale St. Antoni" was not written by Haydn. It's often attributed to one of his students, Ignatz Pleyel.

"We really don't know who the theme was by, and so in some ways this is a concert of mysterious music," Pickett said. "What Brahms liked about it, I think, is that it's kind of a pleasant little theme that isn't too complicated, and you can do an awfully lot with it. The other thing is, it's a five-bar theme, which makes it asymmetrical, and that gave him a lot of leeway."

Dr. Byron McGilvray led the Juneau Lyric Opera in a production of Mozart's "Requiem" for the 1997 Mid-Summer Vocal Festival. Pickett has not conducted "Requiem" before, but he sang the bass solo in college. At the same time he's preparing "Requiem," Pickett is also conducting Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" for his other orchestra, the North State Symphony Orchestra in Chico, Calif.

The "Ninth" includes about 16 minutes of singing in German, while "Requiem" is 50 minutes in Latin.

"Latin is a lot easier to sing than German, particularly because English has so many Latin roots," Pickett said. "'Requiem' is much longer, but the Beethoven requires the singers to sing very high all of the time. The Mozart is written better for the singers, and in that respect, it's easier to sing."

"Requiem" is best-known, and often overshadowed, by the mysterious circumstances surrounding its composition. Scholars have argued about how much of the work Mozart actually wrote, and who, in fact, completed the piece. The story was popularized in the Hollywood film "Amadeus."

"It's so beautiful, and so moving and so remarkable in every way, that I think it really does surpass any of the mystery and controversy surrounding it," Pickett said.

"Requiem" was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted a memorial for his wife, Anna, who died in 1791, Pickett said. The count was an unusual character. He would commission pieces anonymously and pass them off as his own. In this case, Mozart was approached by a so-called "gray messenger," the strange nature of whom has further shrouded "Requiem" in mystery.

"The gray messenger was essentially the count's steward," Pickett said. "He brought Mozart the commission, and said, 'We want you to write this piece, but don't try to find out who you're writing for. You'll be paid really well.'"

Mozart was applying for a job as music director at a cathedral and needed to prove he could write church music. This was a fine opportunity. But already sick, as he approached completion, he realized he was dying. He died at age 35 on Dec. 5, 1791, and left his notes with his wife, Constanze. She convinced one of his students, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the rest.

"There's quite a bit of controversy over how much Mozart did and how much was done by the student Sussmayr, and the answer is pretty clear," Pickett said. "There are two movements that Sussmayr had to do, but even those are clearly sort of filling out ideas that Mozart passed on to him. I fall squarely into the camp that says that what you're hearing is almost all Mozart."

"Requiem" is divided into five main sections, or 12 movements. The first and final sections are written in a complicated double fugue.

Mozart is known as an opera composer. His works included "The Magic Flute," "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni," all of which were showcased recently in Opera to GO!'s "Mozart Reimagined." But his favorite music to write was for the church, and he wrote quite a bit of religious music under the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Some of the prevalent themes in "Requiem" seem to be Mozart's own pleas for sanctuary in the afterlife, Pickett said. "Ne perennia cremer igne" translates to "Let me not burn in the eternal flame." "Dona eis equiem" means "Grant them eternal rest."

"I call it a personal requiem," Pickett said. "Again, contrary to 'Amadeus,' he was a very pious and religious person and a very devout and serious Catholic."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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