Thoughts on playing Mozart, intention, and the permission to sing

When I was a teenager I listened obsessively to the 1950’s Amadeus Quartet recordings of the Mozart viola quintets.  I have a vivid memory of a family trip to the Oregon coast, taking my walkman (yes it was the early 90’s) out to the beach at night and listening to the C Major Quintet K. 515 while lying in the sand.  The longing, the beauty, the vocal openness made life not only bearable, but magical.  Many of us have that loving experience with Mozart. 


But that experience can also be tainted for many performers.  So many of us build up this idea of Mozartian purity and perfection to the point that we are unable to play his music at all.  We have some unpleasant performances and decide that Mozart is an egg not be cracked except by the best performers, the ones who have finally “figured out how to play.”  (I have noticed a similar frustration when talking to composers; not unlike the famous tales of jealously from Mozart’s lifetime, there can be an annoyance and bitterness that sets in when mentioning Mozart: “well, of course the music just flowed right out of him.”)  Trying to find the answer to playing and interpreting Mozart, we practice to be perfect, we over-control, and we miss the point.


I have certainly suffered this Mozart lockdown.  While I have always connected so strongly to his music, for many of my adult years I couldn’t listen to my beloved Mozart quintets.  If a Mozart quartet came on the radio I would shut it off immediately.  I did the same thing in my work.  After practicing for hours upon hours, trying to craft the direction of each phrase and painstakingly tune each note of a Mozart quartet, I thought I could then release it in performance.  But we perform what we practice, so any performance with that kind of preparation sounds micromanaged, with attention drawn to any non-perfect intonation and too-predictably phrased lines.


What I have discovered is that the secret to playing Mozart is a transparency of intention.  Many performers say “I feel naked onstage playing Mozart.”  I agree.  And unless I accept and welcome that vulnerability, playing Mozart is not an enjoyable experience.  The transparency comes from being fully open to the possibilities of the moment, of smiling at risk, rediscovering my heart, and practicing being in that state.  The hours of working on the craft of the music are still necessary and valid, but it is very much the intention that matters in practicing Mozart. 


And these kinds of practice sessions are where I look forward to reconnecting to the magic of my Oregon beach at night.  Listening to singers, tapping into that indescribable longing in Mozart’s music through singing the melodies and finding the release in myself: these pursuits are just as important as any tuning episode.  My group the Chiara Quartet routinely sings Mozart quartets in our rehearsals.  While often devolving into fits of hilarity (especially in the faster movements—we are not opera singers for a reason!), we find that connecting to his ease, his unique vocal energy loosens us up to be more genuinely ourselves.  It is through practicing these intentions that I find it possible to go onstage and play without the fear of cracking the Mozartian egg. 


My quartet recently performed the complete Brahms quartets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  For an encore we played the slow movement of Mozart’s K. 465 quartet, a piece we have performed for almost 16 years and one I always associate with Greenwood Music Camp and the transformation fostered in that summer environment.  Here is our performance from October 2, 2015: