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Mozart’s Hidden Subversion

Louis Lortie with the CBC Orchestra, March 16, 2008

The Georgia Straight

by Alexander Varty

Sometimes you just have to confess. And while I doubt I’m alone in this, I have a terrible little secret: although I admire Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, although I can recognize his glittering brilliance and his importance in the development of classical music, I don’t much like his tunes. But with Louis Lortie’s help, I just might come around.

Lortie is the internationally renowned Canadian-born pianist and conductor who has made Mozart’s music one of his many specialties. He’s recorded all 27 of the Austrian master’s piano concertos, so if anybody is equipped to assist me with my Mozart problem, he’s the one. And when I reach him at home in Berlin, he’s surprisingly willing to help.

“Like any kind of music, it’s a matter of how you feel connected to it,” he says. “Maybe you have a problem with that time in history? It would be interesting to see if you like the paintings of the same time, or the other art forms: Maybe you just don’t like the rococo period in general. It would be interesting to see if you like the architecture of that time. It’s all a matter of connecting, historically.”

Hmmm. Being an instinctive modernist, I’m not really fond of the rococo. So Lortie suggests that one way to listen to Mozart is to view him as a subtle agent of change, working within some very codified structures.

“Mozart was maybe the last great genius to be really a prisoner of his time,” the former child prodigy asserts. “After Beethoven, of course, musicians took a lot of liberty. But what’s interesting with Mozart is that although he always seems to be following the rules of what’s happening around him, he’s actually very subversive – but in a very, very subdued way.

“That’s the whole thing about Mozart: his outside image is so polished; he seems to be such a good boy. But once you start to look under the carpet, it’s very interesting to see all there is there. It’s the same with the literature, as well. If you look at Mozart’s letters, even if you don’t care for the music, they’re very interesting to read. He was a very devout Catholic-you didn’t have any choice about that – and there was so much tragedy and so many deaths in everybody’s family that you had to take life seriously. But despite his very religious background he would start making all sorts of jokes about sex, or about going to the toilet and things like that. It’s weird! It’s a strange mix.”


Lortie cites Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor – which he’ll play with the CBC Radio Orchestra in an afternoon concert at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (March 16) – as an example of the composer’s ability to chart the extremes of both levity and tragedy. “In that piece it’s quite incredible to see how he can switch on and off, especially in the last movement, from the minor to the major. It’s a little bit like the weather: it can be very, very cloudy and suddenly the most incredible ray of sunshine will pierce through.

“On the surface,” he continues, “it doesn’t seem to be so revolutionary, the way [Franz Joseph] Haydn would be, for example. Haydn would point with his finger and say, ‘Oh, look what I’m doing here: I’m doing a much longer phrase than you thought,’ or ‘I’m changing keys here.’ With Mozart, the veneer is very, very, very classical and very conformist. It’s really like somebody who’s going to a nice dinner and behaves very well at the table, but maybe he’s putting his hands on the girls’ knees under the table and nobody notices. That kind of thing.”

For Lortie, this covert sensuality is one of Mozart’s main attractions. And in concert it’s a quality he amplifies by serving as both piano soloist and conductor – as did Wolfgang Amadeus himself.

“This is rather new,” he says, “but people are starting to understand that it doesn’t make sense to play Mozart with a conductor and a .pianist. You don’t need a ·relay in between, like you do in the big Romantic concertos, where you have a big orchestra massed against the soloist and somebody must be there to integrate everything. In .this case, I think the idea of the conversation, of the piano in dialogue with the strings and the winds, is much more in keeping with the spirit of what we think Mozart was doing.”

The .important thing, Lortie adds, is to avoid playing by rote – and, somewhat surprisingly, he compares his goal to the act of improvisation, even though Mozart’s interpreters always work from a written score.

“We dream that we also can be improvisers,” he says. “That’s our aim, our goal: to make it fresh, as if it was improvised. But for that you really need to feel that you’re inside the music, that you know how it’s worked out.”

Now, that’s the kind of Mozart this jazz baby might enjoy.

Thu Mar 13, 2008