By Rick Schultz
OJAI, Calif. – There’s nothing new about meddling with the classics. It’s one way to honor a work of art. Mozart made string arrangements of Bach’s adagios and fugues, Mahler beefed up the orchestration for Schumann’s symphonies, and at this year’s Ojai Festival in California, which runs June 12 to 15, the pianist-composer Timo Andres “re-composes” and completes Mozart’s “Coronation” Piano Concerto (No. 26 in D).
Andres, the youngest of the four performing pianists at this year’s keyboard-centric festival – music director Jeremy Denk, jazz pianist and composer Uri Caine, and Grace Fong are the other three – performs his Mozart recomposition June 14 with the New York-based chamber orchestra, The Knights, conducted by Eric Jacobsen.
[The Ojai Festival will stream the concert live at 6 p.m. PT Saturday, June 14, and later archive the performance on the website.]
The next day, Andres plays two solo piano works, his own It takes a long time to become a good composer (2010), and Kreisleriana, eight untitled fantasies composed by Robert Schumann when he was 28, Andres’ current age.
“Since one of the sub-themes weaving through the festival is looking at music from different vantage points, the notion of Timo’s ‘Coronation’ Concerto recomposition became an irresistible addition,” said Thomas W. Morris, the festival’s artistic director since 2004. “It’s looking at Mozart through a different lens.”
Andres said he re-composed Mozart’s penultimate concerto (composed in 1788; Mozart died in 1791) in the spirit of fun. “But it’s not a party trick,” Andres said. “I’m integrating the older music, not just imposing my pithy postmodernism. It comes from a genuine place. I grew up with this stuff, and love Mozart, Schumann, Brahms. The idea is to find ways to constantly renew this tradition and keep it contemporary.”
From the opening bars of the piano part, Andres’s version of the “Coronation” takes Mozart into the 21st century. It’s unpredictable – lyrical and intense, with engaging harmonic colors and driving rhythms. Even with Andres’ inspired tampering, Mozart’s rondo finale still sparkles, if not exactly as it would have for Emperor Leopold II, whose coronation the piece honored.
Why choose the “Coronation” Concerto? Blame it on Mozart. His concerto is sketchy, especially in the second and third movements. He didn’t notate the cadenzas, and most of the parts for the left hand are missing. The composer probably did a lot of improvising to fill out the score when he first performed it at court in 1789. When Andres gave the West Coast premiere of his “Coronation” re-composition with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 2012, conductor Jeffrey Kahane, who had performed a survey of all the concertos, told the audience it was the Mozart concerto he liked least.
Indeed, Andres said his project would not have worked with any other Mozart concerto, because the “Coronation” was conceived to be popular. “This concerto is a festive, public piece, so I didn’t feel as deep a connection to it,” he said. “It’s long, hard to interpret and full of empty virtuoso filigree and figurations.”
Andres said he would never have tried such a project with Brahms or Ravel. “Their work is so obsessively and meticulously crafted that everything works almost too well,” he said.
Morris said he was struck by how Andres makes something so familiar his own. “When I first heard his recomposition, it was surprising and shocking,” Morris said, “but as you listen, it’s amazing how Timo’s voice almost takes over, even though everything that Mozart wrote in the manuscript is there. You have to think, If Mozart were alive today, might he have improvised something like this?”
In a sense, Andres’s music is continually in dialogue with the past, and Schumann is another composer he’s been speaking to, as it were, since he was a teenager. “He’s problematic, but in a great way,” Andres said, adding that his piece, It takes a long time to be a good composer, is a kind of inquiry into Schumann’s Kreisleriana.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how Kreisleriana works, because it really does work,” Andres said. “People always feel they have to make excuses for Schumann, even some musicians, and he did struggle to distinguish himself in larger forms, because that was not who he was at his core.”
Another example of Andres’ dialogue with the past occurs in How can I live in your world of ideas?, a piano work on his first Nonesuch recording, Shy and Mighty (2010). In it, Andres quotes Chopin’s late Polonaise-fantaisie, a favorite piece he has played since age 13. The score is a gateway to understanding what Andres’ harmonically conceived music is all about.
“There’s a feeling of rootlessness, that anything can happen,” Andres said about the enigmatic, improvisatory-seeming score. “But there is also this narrative thread holding it together.”
Born in Palo Alto, Calif., Andres grew up in rural Washington, Conn. Ever since his father gave him an electronic keyboard at age 7, he “felt compelled to write something down.” He dropped out of high school at 16, studied composition in the Juilliard School pre-college division and then at Yale.
Andres said he never wanted to be a pianist-composer like Liszt. “Liszt was a piano jock, and being so facile leads to compositional shortcuts,” he said. “I could do cheap tricks and make my music sound impressive. What is pianistic sounds good on the surface, but I don’t want to hide a lack of musical substance.”
Friends like pianist Kirill Gerstein may one day convince Andres of Liszt’s depth as a composer. “I heard him play the B minor Sonata, and it was stunning,” Andres said. But for now he’s more attracted to composers like Beethoven, who “pushed at boundaries, stretched the rules and did crazy things.” He cites Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, as an example of doing all three.
“Beethoven is thumbing his nose at what came before,” Andres said. “The Grosse Fuge could have been written in this decade. For me, musical progress is not comparable to scientific progress, because stuff cycles back on itself. It’s not a goal-oriented track – it’s a kind of messy progress.”
Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.