Exotic sounds inspire music of masters
Quick -- what do the Beatles, Paul Simon and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in common? The answer: 200 years before George Harrison and Paul Simon started introducing sounds from faraway places in their music, Mozart was already doing it. You can hear the results when illustrious Canadian violinist Lara St. John joins the Honolulu Symphony this weekend for Mozart's "Turkish" Violin Concerto No. 5.
The Honolulu Symphony, conducted by Christoph Campestrini:
» In concert: 8 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday
» Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
» Tickets: $15 to $68; students $10
» Call: 792-2000 (days) or (808) 524-0815, ext. 245, (evenings), or visit www.honolulusymphony.com
The first two movements are the Mozart you know and love. The soloist scrambles all over the fingerboard in the first movement with a mixture of majesty, mischief and melodrama, and sings through the second like an opera soprano. It's in the last movement that things start to feel a little different, a little exotic and extra-fun.
In Mozart's time the Turks were fading as a military danger to Europe and were threatening to invade with their music instead. Turkish military bands were a new status symbol at the courts of Europe. They could entertain with fancy moves such as twirling drumsticks, and they played new and noisy instruments like the cymbal, triangle and bass drum.
Mozart liked what he heard. His first attempt at Turkish-sounding music was for a ballet scene in one of his operas. The scene never got off the ground, so he used the music in his violin concerto instead. For the sake of the soloist -- Mozart himself the first time this concerto was played -- he turned down the volume a bit. So the percussionists sit this one out.
Instead, the cellos and basses play with the wood of their bows instead of the hair, joined by the oboe and horn in a "left, right, left-right-left" rhythm straight out of a military band. I'm glad it's them and not my own violin section. I never enjoy using my bow as a drumstick.
The exoticism of the Mozart piece fits in perfectly with the rest of the program, aptly titled "Exotic Touch." We'll begin with Weber's "Invitation to the Dance." Weber, a first cousin of Mozart's wife, Constanze, wrote it as a piano piece before the master orchestral composer Hector Berlioz fleshed it out for use as a ballet scene in an opera.
After intermission we'll perform Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" and Ravel's famous "Bolero," two pieces that feature brilliant orchestral colors and originated as -- what else -- ballets. These are two pieces that I am always excited to play, and this time, even the percussionists have a lot to do.
And, by the way, the cymbals they'll be playing? Still made in Turkey.
Sasha Margolis is a violinist with the Honolulu Symphony.