Netherlands Wind Ensemble plays Mozart better than that guy in the wig

By Manasi Vydyanath

The concert was a Haydnesque variation upon Mozart, an invention based around fragmentation and bifurcation. The renowned Netherlands Wind Ensemble presented one of Mozart’s most piquant and perhaps most elusive pieces: the Gran Partita in B flat, scored for 12 winds and a double bass. The piece is structured in seven movements, and its performance last Friday was interspersed with readings from Mozart’s correspondence with his father during the period of its composition.

The conception was novel. The ensemble would play a movement, the narrator would don a wig and read one of Mozart’s letters, the Ensemble would perform another movement, and so forth. The intention was to create a sense of conceptual engagement with the work in terms of aesthetic and social context. The circumstances of Mozart’s life as he wrote the piece, his times, his society, his relationships, frustrations, passions, and pain might somehow make the piece seem more real, and would imbue the performance with a unique sense of relevance.

The audience would be able to engage with the music more dialectically if they were able to put aside the image of Mozart as a demi-god for a few hours and see him as an individual, a solid, three-dimensional occupant of history who had, in his time, experienced and perceived the same things that we do. They would be able to identify with Mozart and, by extension, with his music. The idea was a brilliant one—theoretically.

In actuality, there was a distinct tradeoff. The careful construction of social and external context deprived the piece of its immediate, internal aesthetic links. The seven movements of the piece are intimately connected through thematic allusions, transformations, harmonic iterations, and key relationships, all of which contribute to the forging of a cogent musical arch. The movements create a narrative that starts with the very first chord of the piece and is relentlessly driven forward through tempests, conflicts, drama, pathos, fury, revenge, exaltation, misery, reconciliation, love, and loss, eventually achieving resolution. By the time the last movement ends, every loose end is tied up, every circumstance causally explained, and the epic closes with a hint of promise.

To achieve this sense of directional flow, the story needs to be told in one sitting, with no interjections. Every movement is implied by the former, and in turn implies the movement which is to follow. This dependence and interaction was almost completely eliminated by the insertion of the letters. There was an abrupt shift of consciousness, in which we had to transfer our attention from the music and it’s illations to Mozart’s opinion of the Arch-Bishop and Constanza. It was rather like reading strictly one chapter of an Asimov novel a day; one feels dissatisfied both with the novel and with the day.

However, in and of themselves, the letters were charming. They were beautiful little vignettes, slices of Mozart’s life in direct discourse with history. But they seemed to noisily interrupt the piece rather than explain it, which was exceedingly unfortunate. They were the perfect material for a delightful pre-concert conversation, in which the letters could have been rendered in full costume, perhaps even discussed. The Gran Partita could then have been performed as a traditional concert. Do I hear cries of “Conventionality!”? Perhaps. But if the price for impact is a modicum of convention, it might be worth our while to pay it.

That being said, the performance was mesmerizing. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble brought to the piece an unparalleled sense of elegant energy. The performance literally coruscated with vitality without losing its sophistication. This was especially palpable in the Romanza; suffused with a curiously directional ethereality, the listener was carried forward almost in a trance with passages that seemed effortless, soaring, and quintessentially improvisatory. The tempi were brisk, and the articulation was perhaps the best I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. Their attack—the character of the stresses that are put on the beginning of a note, phrase, or passage—was flawless.

The two clarinets of the ensemble blended mellifluously, and the oboes provided the touch of sharpness that kept the tremulous from the trite. There were some mild timing issues during the second trio, in which the clarinets and the flutes played slightly out of sync with each other. Apart from that, I would be committing an unpardonable crime of understatement if I did not say that the concert was extraordinary and that the performers are probably the most gifted interpreters of Mozart’s wind ensemble repertoire of our time.

In all of Mozart’s writing there lies an intimacy and exquisite sensitivity. Even in his moments of supreme grandeur, there’s always a hint of wildflowers and a Bohemian fiddle. It was precisely this sense of implicit loveliness, this kernel of enchantment embedded in the magnificent, that the ensemble was able to create. And it was precisely this sense of closeness, philosophical connectedness, and tales by the fireside that the structure of the concert—with myriad interjections—was unable to maintain.