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Emma Johnson plays Mozart: Themes and variations

13 April 2017: Forum Theatre, Malvern Theatres

  • Joseph Haydn – Concerto for Two Flutes in C Major, Hob.VIIh:1
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622
  • Christoph Willibald Gluck – Dance of the Blessed Spirits
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony no40 in G minor, K550

Tonight’s concert should probably be dedicated to Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry: who not only inspired Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid – but whose name means ‘beautiful voiced’.

Moreover, there is a keyboard instrument called a calliope: which features a set of pipes usually powered by steam; and which is not that far removed from the lira organizzata – a fascinating Italian gizmo that is half hurdy-gurdy, half chamber organ. This ‘organ-ized lyre’ was the favourite instrument of King Ferdinand IV of Naples: who was one of the original soloists (along with his teacher) in tonight’s Concerto for Two Flutes – originally, the first of Haydn’s Concertos for Two Lire Organizzate – pieces which work equally well when played not only on flutes, but also oboes and recorders.

Furthermore, the “beautiful voices” of solo woodwind are at the heart of three of this concert’s works – an extremely unusual occurrence indeed: seeing that, as Emma Johnson recently pointed out, when I interviewed her, “The solo repertoire for violin and for piano is far larger than that of any of the woodwind instruments.”

And, finally, it is Calliope’s son Orpheus (or Orfeo) – who the goddess “taught verses for singing” – and his attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice (Euridice) from the Underworld – that inspired the opera from which our third work is taken: Gluck’s ravishing Dance of the Blessed Spirits (which, in placing Elysium, the world of the blessed, within the Underworld, also follows strongly in the Homeric tradition).

Overall, though, it is melody which unites these four late 18th Century works: built, as they are, around some of the most beautiful and memorable tunes ever written. My personal favourite is that which gently opens the Adagio of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto: which Emma described as “one of those examples of pure beauty in art” – one which I find incredibly moving. She confirmed that even for her, as soloist, “it is an emotional experience to play… and if the performer doesn’t feel that, then neither will the audience…. Like an actor,” she added, “you have to learn to manipulate your emotions so they express the work of art you are performing.”

I will leave the last word to Irving Berlin, though: who – with Mozart’s fireworks still ringing in your ears, as you head safely homewards… – probably expresses that enduring property of the greatest tunes better than anyone else: “The song is ended But the melody lingers on.”

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