Ask listeners to cite the most challenging works for orchestras, and they might mention Igor Stravinsky’s once-revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring, with its spiky harmonies and intricate polyrhythms. Or they might point to the structural and emotional complexity of a large-scale symphony by Gustav Mahler. The works of Wolfgang Mozart probably would not be mentioned, and that would be wrong, according to Manfred Honeck, music director of the well-respected Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “I can understand,” he said, “that sometimes audiences think, ‘Oh, it’s so nice and so light and such gorgeous music. Beautiful.’ But sometimes people don’t realize how hard it is to bring this out this pureness.”
Audiences will have a chance to see Honeck take on the deceptive challenges of Mozart’s music when he joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 8-10 and 13 for a program devoted entirely to the celebrated composer. He first conducted the orchestra in 1995 at the Ravinia Festival, where he substituted on short notice for James Conlon. His debut subscription concerts as guest conductor came in February 2002, and he has returned regularly to Chicago since.
When the CSO’s artistic staff asked if he would be willing to lead an all-Mozart concert, Honeck did not need much convincing. “I love this Viennese music, anyway,” he said. “I was born in Austria and I grew up there, and my music education was in Vienna, so I very much love Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.”
The question then quickly became: Which of Mozart’s hundreds of works should be included? He decided to create a diverse line-up with selections across the composer’s life, with an emphasis on pieces less frequently performed. Honeck also wanted to touch on the composer’s lifelong fondness for opera and his penchant for the piano, the instrument on which Mozart performed across Europe as perhaps the most famous prodigy of all time. “He loved the piano concerto,” Honeck said. “The piano concertos are a cornerstone of his oeuvre.”
The program’s earliest work is Exsultate, jubilate (Exalt, Rejoice), K. 165, a solo motet that Mozart — then still a teenager — composed in 1773 while staying in Milan during the production of his opera Lucio Silla. It was written for castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, and it will be performed here by Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann, making her American debut.
The soprano also will be heard in Laudemas te from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, K. 427 (417a), which he began in 1782-83, intending the soprano solos to be for his wife, Constanze, but they were ultimately left unfinished. Rounding out Mühlemann’s contributions to the concert will be Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio, K. 418, from around the same time. It was written for Mozart’s sister-in-law, soprano Aloysia Weber, as a so-called insertion aria for performance in an opera by another composer. These connections to Constanze and her sister, Honeck said, give the program an added biographical dimension.
Also from this time is Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major (Haffner), K. 385, which was commissioned by the prominent Haffner family of Salzburg. It was originally conceived as a serenade and then restructured, with its premiere in its final form coming in 1783 at the Vienna Burgtheater.
From the last period of Mozart’s life is the overture to La clemenza di Tito, K. 621, the composer’s final opera, and his culminating Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595, with renowned British pianist Paul Lewis as soloist.
“The pieces, what you see here, they are not necessarily very often played, even the Haffner Symphony,” Honeck said. “Most of the time, we are performing the G Minor Jupiter Symphony or the Prague Symphony. But the Haffner is seldom heard, and what a gorgeous symphony! And also the overture to La clemenza di Tito is not very often played. Normally, you play The Magic Flute overture or [The Marriage of] Figaro.”
Further elucidating the difficulties of playing Mozart’s music, Honeck pointed to the need to master its stylistic feel. A half-century or more ago, orchestras typically played his works in the same florid way as they would those of a Romantic-era composer like Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But the rise of the period-instrument movement in the 1960s and ’70s and the historical research that came along with it brought a lighter, more stylistically restrained approach to the composer’s music that was closer to what Mozart intended.
Even more important is coming to terms with the music’s transparency. To explain, Honeck used the metaphor of a glass of water. Drop in just a few bits of sand or dirt, and the water immediately becomes cloudy. So it is with the smallest mistakes in performing the composer’s works. The listener can easily hear the tiniest waver in intonation or the slightest studder in rhythm.
“The transparency, the tenderness and the pureness is the challenge,” Honeck said. “You cannot hide, as I said before. I don’t want to say that you can hide in Tchaikovsky or Mahler, but Mahler is such a big kind of sound, which is great. I really love Mahler. But in Mozart, there is nowhere you can hide and every musician has to play absolutely 100 percent in tune and stylistically have the same speed of bowing and these things. And that makes it hard.”