KSO Explores Mozart's Lowbrow Humor in an Energetic Performance

As the story goes, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was quite upset after viewing Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus in London, categorically refusing to accept director Peter Hall's factual documentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's off-color and often scatological sense of humor. "It was inconceivable that a man who wrote such exquisite and elegant music could be so foul-mouthed," she said.

Those like Thatcher who need their reality well-regulated should probably have steered clear of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks all-Mozart concerts last week. While her opinion of the "exquisite and elegant" side of Mozart would have remained untarnished, the playful humor and sophisticated satire of the evening's four works might have rubbed her infamous austerity the wrong way.

Lara St. John, the featured guest violinist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, is no stranger to playful humor. On the cover of her 1996 debut album of Bach solo violin pieces, the then-25-year-old, strikingly tall and attractive violinist was photographed waist-up, covered only by her violin, strategically placed. Seventeen years later, St. John is obviously still comfortable in her own skin, but perhaps a little wiser, having learned that strong, attractive women in classical music often come under critical fire if they use suggestions of sexuality as a marketing tool. As the concerto performance proved, she is also still comfortable in her role as a substantial interpreter and vivid entertainer, albeit in a broad personal style that emphasized interesting passage work over absolute precision and tone. As a result, St. John's take on the concerto probably left some a bit perplexed to varying degrees. Historically, though, Mozart would probably have approved, certainly to her subtle weaving of a few abstract bars of "The Tennessee Waltz" into the second movement cadenza at the Friday evening performance.

The humor got quite a bit deeper after intermission as Lucas Richman and the orchestra told Mozart's A Musical Joke, K. 522—a work scored for two horns and a string quartet, with the quartet expanded to a full string section in concert settings. Mozart's lifelong struggle for income—while substantially lesser talents enjoyed comfort, respect, and lucrative positions—was probably the motivator for this composition, in which he satirizes inept and untalented colleagues and incompetent players of his day. The specifically repetitive, hackneyed, unimaginative, and clumsy passages slowly bring a smile to the listener's face, particularly when the horn players struggle to find the right key.

Just as it takes real talent to pull off musical satire, it takes real work for disciplined professional players to deliberately sound silly and amateurish. A perfect example was the solo from concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz in the third movement, in which he depicted the effect that odd notation, bizarre runs, and Mozartian humor might have had on some poor 18th-century violinist. Lefkowitz could not disguise, though, his own gorgeous tone and playing ability. And for those familiar with Mozart's interest in scatological banter, the work ends in a laugh-producing, discordant, dissonant chord that can only be described as a fart. Beautifully done, but a fart nonetheless.

At the ripe old age of 21, Mozart and his mother left their home in Salzburg on a trip that would take them to Mannheim and eventually to Paris in search of income-producing work. The Symphony No. 31 in D Major, which concluded the concert, was commissioned and premiered in Paris in 1778 and was created with the express intention to impress Parisian audiences while blatantly catering to their musical tastes—all with the hope of attracting more work.

The additional employment never materialized for Mozart, but his goal of delighting the Parisian music crowd succeeded. At the premiere, the audience was reportedly quite taken by the piece and, in the fashion of the day, applauded during its playing. KSO's Friday night audience didn't go that far, but the exuberance and energy of the work, and the orchestra's performance, did invite a fair amount of momentum-halting applause after each movement. This is not so much an issue in an upbeat work such as the "Paris" symphony, but it can be a distraction to focused listeners and orchestra members in more serious, dramatic fare. After all, one should never feel compelled to applaud, during a piece or after; "consider the situation" is the best advice. Applause was warranted at the end, though, for this was a tight and richly textured performance with a driving energy that practically urged you out of your seat.