Alon Goldstein Delights In A Small-Ensemble Look at Mozart Concertos

Fewer Is More

By Mark Thomas Ketterson


It has often been observed that the classical music neophyte who wishes to know the joys of Mozart might best begin with the piano concertos. Two that particularly display a representative Mozartean consciousness are the popular Concertos No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, and No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. Composed a scant few weeks apart from one another during a period of febrile creativity in 1785, these marvelous pieces reveal Mozart taking a momentous step forward in compositional maturity, and they provide tantalizing glimpses of the dramatic intensity that would grace his mature operas as well as the polyphonic glory of his later symphonies. Ravinia’s audience will have a chance to savor these two emblematic concertos in Bennett Gordon Hall on September 8, when the celebrated Israeli/ American piano virtuoso Alon Goldstein is joined by the Fine Arts Quartet in a rarely heard arrangement of the works for piano and string quintet. Rachel Calin, on double bass, will complement the assemblage in what promises to be a captivating musical adventure.

Goldstein is a familiar presence at the festival. A 1994 graduate of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, he was its first alumnus to return as faculty. He has been lauded for his impeccable technical polish and sensitive musical intelligence in a career that has taken him to virtually every major musical center in the United States and Europe, under the batons of such illustrious conductors as Zubin Mehta, Leon Fleisher, Yoel Levi, Herbert Blomstedt, and many others. With his palpable warmth and lightning- quick intelligence (and great accent), Goldstein is also a delight to speak with. Born just outside Tel Aviv, his was not a musical family, although his maternal grandfather was an all-around artist who earned a living as a painter, played the violin, and even did Charlie Chaplin routines. Goldstein’s parents were eager for their four children to receive a well- rounded education, so each of them studied an instrument. The young pianist’s aptitude was immediately apparent (though he is careful to elucidate that he was “not a prodigy child”), and he kept at his musical studies after his siblings had long moved on to other interests. A watershed moment came at age 17 when he attended a concert of young musicians conducted by Zubin Mehta. “I was so envious,” Goldstein reminisces. “I remember the next morning I thought, let’s wake up every day at 6 a.m., practice for five hours, and see what happens. It was an awakening. Every day in my life I try to give 150 percent, so if something goes wrong maybe 120 percent will be on the stage. And the following year I played under Mehta! It wasn’t that I didn’t play well before, but I realized that playing well was not enough—it is either give 150 percent or do something else.”

Mozart’s Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 are two of Goldstein’s cherished pieces, and indeed both have been audience favorites since their 1785 premieres. Beyond the concert hall, they have achieved pop culture familiarity through their use in such films as Amadeus, and in the case of No. 21, Elvira Madigan. (The concerto’s association with that film is so strong that many today believe that “Elvira Madigan” is the work’s proper name. “Whatever sells,” Goldstein quips darkly.) Their ubiquity is more than justified by a stunning level of compositional inspiration. “These concertos were written within the same month, which is staggering in terms of how different they are,” Goldstein observes. “And what is more staggering is the concerto written just before, number 19. That is young Mozart. It is dangerous to say, because he wrote great masterpieces before, but there is something about 20 and 21 where you draw a line and enter a different era. My teacher, the legendary Leon Fleisher, liked to say it was useful to put words on the patterns you play, because you get more inflections, momentum, you understand how the phrases go. When I play Mozart I have to put those words in Italian. In the 20th and 21st concertos, the vocabulary is so much more enriched; he has so many more words to express himself, a greater number of characters he is introducing.

“In Mozart there is always a turn of event that is totally unexpected. In Le nozze di Figaro we have one of the great climaxes in Western music, when the Count catches Cherubino in the closet with the Countess. Everyone is there, and suddenly the gardener comes in, and it’s like, ‘What are you doing here; you are supposed to be in some other opera!’ In the concertos, too, suddenly he introduces a new theme that might never come back, just as that gardener comes in and then leaves. It adds another level of humanity to something which is so out of this world divine.

“I like to think of keys as colors, and the key of D minor, how different it is from C major! D minor is tragic. It is the key of the Requiem, of Don Giovanni. D minor enters your heart in places it hurts the most. It is almost like setting the tone for the entire Romantic era, almost like the Mozart D minor is the first Romantic concerto.”

The transcriptions for piano and string quintet to be heard at Ravinia are credited to composer Ignaz Lachner, who lived from 1803 to 1890. Exactly how and why they came about is a matter of “finding the treasure,” Goldstein quips. The first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet found the scores in a library in Australia. “The idea of arranging music for other purposes was much more common in Mozart’s time. The whole idea of arranging music was not an ‘event.’ Today when we think of Ravel and his orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, we know the exact date, time, and what he drank that morning! But in that earlier era, it was part of the basic education to be an amateur musician, to compose. We celebrate Ravel’s arrangement of Pictures, but I don’t think there was any celebration of Mozart arranging Bach. You wanted to play this glorious music at home, for domestic use.”

And how do the concertos sound sans full orchestrations? “There are certain aspects of these arrangements that I must say I do like better!” Goldstein says. “The music of Bach is arranged to so many different instruments, yet it works. Chopin on the other hand has been arranged for other instruments, and it doesn’t work. So one of the questions I asked myself was, does this music belong to the instrument or [vice versa]? So much of Bach arranged for other instruments works fantastically, so it’s almost like Bach’s music does not belong to any specific instrument. Can this Mozart piece work like Bach does, when it is arranged for other instruments? It works magnificently, I think.

“We are making chamber music,” Goldstein continues. “The ideal, when you play Mozart concertos—it is a story; you converse with the oboe or with the first-violin section or the flute, and that is so difficult when you have [just] a dress rehearsal and a concert with an orchestra. When you do chamber music you have five or six rehearsals, and it really gets to the intimacy when we are sitting one seat from one another. The instruments accompany or support or react to one another. So, if we are saying an ideal is to sound like a chamber conversation, you might as well play a chamber conversation. There is a certain level of intimacy in these arrangements which I find incredibly difficult to achieve in an orchestral performance. Well, now you get the chamber feel par excellence!

“It is no revelation,” Goldstein reminds us, “to say that these Mozart concertos are miniature operas. So in the concert we are telling a dramatic story about an infinite array of characters; we are going to have the maid, we are to have the Count, we are going to have the gardener—all these characters coming to life. And it is nicer to speak to them close!”

Were it not for the intervention of Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman, we might not have this chance to hear the conversation at all—at least not in 2015, with the season being solidly booked. Goldstein’s manager suggested the pianist contact Kauffman personally on the matter. “He called right back,” Goldstein chuckles, “and said, ‘What are you doing September 8?’ Welz is a good friend.

“I always say [Ravinia] was my favorite festival as a student,” Goldstein reflects. “I went to seven or eight major festivals and all of them were fantastic places with great qualities. And yet Ravinia was my favorite. The leadership has such a sense of integrity. It was very personal. The festival was about you, not the big machine that makes the money. And the faculty that came! One week with Fleisher, one with Pressler, one with Claude Frank, one with Christoph Eschenbach. Are you kidding me? You don’t have that anywhere. My association with Ravinia now is that one week I come to teach at Steans. It is one of the highlights of my season, every season.”

Those who are unable to attend the concert in Bennett Gordon Hall can still hear Goldstein in these intimate arrangements of Mozart’s enchanting concertos on a new CD from Naxos, released earlier this summer. “And,” Goldstein beams, “it says ‘world premiere’!”

Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.