‘Mozart’s music literally changed my life’

Ensemble DeNOTE Manoel Theatre

Ensemble deNOTE founder and pianist John Irving shares some thoughts ahead of the Mozart-themed performance taking place at Teatru Manoel that will feature an actual Broadwood.

Ensemble deNOTE made waves across the UK for bringing 18th-century music to 21st audiences in quirky, unexpected ways.

Their educational project, which presents Mozart’s music to students in a digital, interactive format, has been lauded for its innovational and fun aspect, so their upcoming concert at Teatru Manoel promises all sorts of good things. Here, we put some questions to John Irving, who will be performing on the Broadwood that was bequeathed to Teatru Manoel by the late Dr George Debono.

How was your love for 18th-century chamber music born? What is it that attracted you to this particular era and style?

I was first attracted to Mozart’s music as a child. Aged eight, I recall my piano teacher setting me a new piece to learn for the next lesson.

It was a Minuet by Mozart and immediately I thought this was on a completely different level from any of short pieces I’d learnt up to that point. While it was very simple to play, musically it was quite beyond anything I’d ever encountered before. It literally changed my life.

And it was a great pleasure, many years later, to record it – along with many other Mozart works – on a historic clavichord from 1763. What most appeals to me about the classical style is its symmetry, its elegance; a profound understanding of proportion eloquently expressed.

When, and how, was the ensemble born?

We are now celebrating our tenth anniversary! I founded Ensemble deNote as a practical arm of London University’s Institute of Musical Research when I was appointed director in 2009.

My brief there was to expand the role of performance-as-research (and especially period-instrument performance). So, I teamed up with some other players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, including my wife, Jane Booth (our clarinettist), in order to explore historical approaches to Beethoven’s chamber music for strings, wind and piano in a series of practical workshops at the Institute.

The group just took off from there, really, soon expanding its repertoire, getting more and more concerts, and gaining a reputation for rather quirky performances in which we departed from the letter of the score, treating it more as a script than a rule-book, adding layers of improvisation, for example – just as would have been done in the 18th-century.

Ten years later, we have recorded four CDs and a DVD, and are playing in venues across the UK. One of our strengths, as I see it anyway, is our flexibility: we are anything from a duo to a quintet. In our programme at the Manoel Theatre, we’ll be playing a Trio for clarinet, viola and piano; a Quartet for piano and strings; and a Quintet version (c.1805) of Mozart’s mighty 13-Wind Serenade, K.361, deftly arranged for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano just over 200 years ago.

What are the biggest challenges transposing music from three centuries ago to today’s audiences?

The main challenge, in my view, is recapturing the intimacy of the original performance settings. Much of the repertoire we play was designed not for performance in large concert halls, but for rather more modest domestic spaces (princely chambers, and so forth).

This affects, for instance, the scale of our gestures. Playing to a large space, you often need to exaggerate contrasts of loud and soft well beyond what was necessary – or expected – in a more intimate salon setting.

But this conflicts with our understanding of the historically-informed performance practices of the time, so we try to attain a compromise, and often we find that clarity of articulation is an effective expressive substitute for forced extremes of soft and loud. Above all, our aim is to retain the conversational aspect of 18-century music-making.

Do you offer your own contemporary re-interpretation, or it about being faithful to the composer’s intentions?

Yes; and yes! There is just so much evidence that Mozart considered his notated scores as a foundation – or a script, as I put it earlier – for musical action, not a prescription.

So, in order to be faithful to his intentions, we need to go beyond his scores. For instance, when a passage is repeated, it may be notated identically, but that is not how he would have expected the performer to play it.

The repeat is ‘conceptual’, a return to a previous idea – but it would be pronounced differently, normally involving elaboration of what you see on the page. In this way, we retain the sense of his music unfolding as a living conversation.

In the finale of the Piano Quartet we will play on November 13, for instance, the opening theme returns several times as a piano solo. I’ll improvise progressively more elaborate decorations to this simple theme, giving a sense of an accumulating journey – a dimension not revealed in the notated score but fundamental to the way Mozart describes his own performance practice in his letters.

In recent years there appears to have been a resurgence in interest with respect to period music. To what do you attribute this?

It’s easy to oversimplify this important cultural trend, which grew exponentially during the 1980s and 1990s with the enormous quantities of ‘period instrument’ CD recordings released.

Interest in what we now call ‘period performance’ has a long history, and is tangled up with complex social and cultural factors. Much of the interest in ‘period sound’ has to do with period instruments – specifically, how they contrast with modern equivalents.

This too, can over-simplify the issue, as there often isn’t a stable historical ‘original’ to take as a starting-point for comparison. To take just one example, the development of the piano between c.1780 and c.1820 is not dissimilar to the development of the computer over the last 40 years, with many different expressions of the same underlying principle coexisting.

Conceptually, we know what a ‘computer’ is, though it takes many forms and has been adapted to many purposes. The same applies to the piano in the era of Mozart and Beethoven, with one important exception – later pianos are not ‘better’, just ‘different’.

The way these many prototypes ‘speak’ the music offers many subtle shades of expression, suggesting that composers of the time did not write with one idealised sound in mind, but were open to an array of possibilities. So it’s a great mistake to think that the modern concert grand piano is the ultimately ‘right’ sound for Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries: superior, for instance, to period pianos such as the lovely Broadwood grand piano (c.1880) that I’ll be playing at the Manoel Theatre.

In terms of the construction, modern concert grands are designed to fill a large auditorium with sound. They do that very well, but at the expense of the subtle colours that can be obtained from the Broadwood instrument.

With a modern grand, basically, you know exactly how it will behave, exactly what sound to expect before you even play a note. With a period piano, you don’t.

An excerpt from the beginning of the Quintet arrangement of Mozart’s Gran’ Partita, K.361 which Ensemble deNOTE will be playing as part of the concert.

You are working with a unique construction, and getting to know its touch and its sound qualities (which will have altered over the years), and working with the instrument – letting it ‘teach you how to play’, in a sense – is a wonderful conversation, a wonderful partnership in creating something new.

That’s how, as a player, I respond to the period instrument approach. I think audiences are fascinated too. People often come up to me after a concert and say that a piece of music they thought they knew sounded completely different (in a good way!) because of the special quality of sound coming from the piano.

You could say the same for woodwind and string instruments, each of which were radically beefed-up during the 19th century in order to fit the soundscape of a concert hall.

What pieces will you perform in the upcoming Mozart concert and what led to these choices?

We’ll be playing an all-Mozart programme: the G minor Piano Quartet, K.478; the Kegelstatt Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, K.498; and an arrangement made by C.F.G. Schwencke in 1805 of Mozart’s famous Gran’ Partita, K.361 – originally a serenade for 13 Winds. All these are featured in volumes 1 and 2 of our Mozart Chamber Music CD recordings.

This programme displays Mozart’s huge expressive range (the music was all composed within a period of about three years during the 1780s).

It is representative too of the diversity of DeNOTE’s instrumental combinations, as well as our fascination with historical chamber-music arrangements of pieces on a symphonic scale.

You are Mozart specialists and your Mozart Live project has met with very positive feedback in the UK. Can you tell us more about it?

The idea for our Mozart Project Live! stageshow was my wife, Jane’s. I had written chapters on the concertos and on the chamber music for the award-winning digital book for iPad, The Mozart Project, back in 2014.

Being a digital platform, it was possible to include performances as well as text, and DeNOTE perform on a number of embedded videos through these chapters.

Jane thought that it would be worth putting the chamber music chapter on stage (also involving actors/dancers in period costume, contrasting with DeNOTE’s players in modern concert dress) mixing live performance with a digital backdrop introducing the iBook – all in a very interactive way.

So we developed the idea as a script and it was funded by the Arts Council as an educational project, bringing Mozart’s music to new audiences across the UK.

How important is it to present the works of classical composers in a format that is more easily digested by younger people? Especially from an educational perspective.

I think the most important thing is to present classical music as a challenge to young people to develop their skills of listening and their powers of description; their sense of identity; the centrality of respectful collaboration with others (including those with a different viewpoint or cultural situation); the importance of resilience, of determination, of having a vision, a goal – and never giving up!

Playing classical music well is hard work. Yes, you may have talent, but that’s worth about 5% of the total needed to succeed. The rest is hard work. That’s an important life lesson, and being educated through music is one of the most rewarding ways of learning it.

You can succeed in life if you work constructively with what you’ve got, engaging your physical and mental resources with expressive potential in a positive way, despite everything life can throw at you. Classical music has some of the greatest role-models you could imagine: Beethoven was a musician with a serious disability, after all.

You will be using the Theatre’s recently restored Broadwood. Can you tell us more about this?

The piano was owned by the late Dr George Debono, whom I came to know as a close friend in his later life. I knew him principally through his great love of music and his astonishing reproductions of historical clavichords (including a very fine copy of the 1763 instrument on which I had recorded a Mozart CD).

I was very happy to learn that these instruments have also been gifted to the Manoel Theatre. Our concert is in his memory. Dating from about 1880, the Broadwood was restored last year by Nikolai Vukovíc, who did an absolutely wonderful job of it!

I was enormously impressed by its range of colour. In the main, this has to do with some constructional features that make it produce its sound in a different way from the modern concert grand.

It is ‘straight strung, meaning that the bass strings do not cross over the upper strings, but run in parallel with all the others. That clarifies the sound, and it’s quite an important aspect for us in this Mozart programme.

My DeNOTE colleagues will be playing instruments in a fundamentally classical ‘setup’, giving quite a light and articulate sound that is just right for Mozart.

If we were using a modern grand, the sheer power of the piano would overwhelm their instruments which use gut strings and wonderfully-refined, but relatively flimsy classical bows.

But with this Broadwood, I was delighted to discover that the sound quality is very transparent (especially in the bass register), meaning that there should be absolutely no problem of balance between the piano and the strings, and opening up the possibility of a very articulate and lively dialogue between us. We’re all looking forward to our concert very much!

The Ensemble DeNOTE perform at Teatru Manoel on November 13. Tickets are available online by clicking here or from the box-office.

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