Robert Levin resurrects an abandoned Mozart concerto at Aspen Music Festival
If You Go …
Who: Robert Levin with the Aspen Chamber Symphony
What: Mozart’s Concerto for violin and piano in D major
When: Friday, July 7, 6 p.m.
Where: Benedict Music Tent
How much: $80
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: Friday’s program also incudes Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte,” Mozart’s Rondo in D Major, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major
Finishing the unfinished works of Mozart requires a brilliant musical mind, rigorous training and, as pianist and musicologist Robert Levin explained, the kind of chutzpah only a cocksure college kid possesses.
Levin on Friday will perform a rarely heard Mozart concerto for violin and piano with the Aspen Chamber Symphony at the Benedict Music Tent. He completed the abandoned Mozart composition nearly 50 years ago as a young Harvard University student, Levin said in a panel discussion this week.
As an undergraduate in 1966, Levin had been encouraged to improvise cadenzas for a Mozart piano concerto. To do that, the young Levin reasoned, he needed to write like Mozart.
“Before I could improvise in the style of Mozart I would need to learn to compose in the style of Mozart,” Levin said Wednesday.
He began researching Mozart’s unfinished work, looking for a piece to finish.
“I made the astonishing discovery that there were over 140 pieces that Mozart began and didn’t finish — and not the worst ones,” Levin recalled. “Some are dry runs and you realize, ‘This is going no place.’ But most of them are not only interesting, some of them are more interesting than the finished pieces.”
With several unfinished Mozart pieces in mind, the young Levin went to Europe to find and study the unfinished manuscripts in the hopes of creating “practical performance versions of these pieces.”
The monumental task, to this precocious teenage music student, didn’t seem so daunting.
“When you’re 18 or 19, you don’t think about how crazy these things are,” he said.
In Mozart’s papers at the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, Levin found the violin and piano concerto, which Mozart wrote in 1778 and which Levin will perform in Aspen with the chamber orchestra and violinist Robert Chen. In the places where it broke off, Levin explained, he extrapolated how to fill in the parts based on what Mozart had written earlier.
Finishing this concerto and another Mozart piece became Levin’s undergraduate honors thesis at Harvard. In 1968, before graduation, he gave a concert at Sanders Theatre, with Rose Mary Harbison on violin. It earned raves and began Levin’s acclaimed and influential career in performance theory and composition. Completing unfinished works by Mozart would later become something of a specialty for Levin. (Most famously, he completed Mozart’s Requiem in D.)
Revisiting it for Friday’s performance, Levin said, has been a bit baffling.
“It’s something that occupied me nearly 50 years ago,” he said. “I look at it now and I shake my head and say, ‘I don’t know how I did that.’”
Conductor Nicholas McGegan, who will lead Friday’s concert — also including Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute” and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony — praised Levin’s reconstructed Mozart.
“You really can’t tell where the Mozart leaves off,” McGegan said. “It’s a wonderful piece.”
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