Mad for Mozart: A Chat with David Greilsammer

Classic Arts Features   Mad for Mozart: A Chat with David Greilsammer
Jerusalem-born pianist David Greilsammer will be living with Mozart in Summer 2008, playing all 18 of the composer's piano sonatas July 5 in an all-day marathon in Paris, following up with six concerts at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland (July 19 _ 31).

An exclusive recording artist for the naÇve label, which will re-issue his acclaimed recording of Mozart's three earliest piano concerts in July (August or September in the US). Admired for his innovative, sometimes startling recital programs, Greilsammer was named the "Revelation of the Year" at France's "Victoires de la Musique Classique." His debut release for naÇve, fantasie_fantasme, was named Record of the Year by the London Times.

Notable upcoming appearances this year include:

  • July 5: Complete Mozart Sonatas Marathon at Chapelle des R_collets (Paris, France)
  • July 19: Complete Mozart Sonatas at Verbier Festival _ six concerts through July 31 (Verbier, Switzerland)
  • September (date TBA): "Fantasy" program at Le Poisson Rouge (New York, NY)
  • December 11: Masonic/Kabbalah program at the 92nd Street Y (New York, NY)

In the conversation below, Greilsammer discusses his passion for Mozart and why he feels a special affection for the composer's earlier but much less well-known works.

Q: So the big Mozart year was 2006, but you're doing a ton of Mozart in 2008 _ including all of his piano sonatas in one day in Paris this July. How did this all come about?

DG: A few years ago, I made a recording of Mozart's three early concertos: Nos. 5, 6, and 8 (No. 7 is for three pianos). These are Mozart's first three original piano concertos, as Concertos No. 1-4 are not really his original works; they are arrangements of works by other composers. For a while before, I was discussing a first recording project with Vanguard Classics. They had heard me play and wanted me to make a recording. I immediately told them my vision _ this dream: not only that I love Mozart and would like my first recording to be Mozart, but that I wanted to record these three unbelievable masterpieces that are so full of freshness, energy _ little jewels _ that nobody knows. Everyone listens to the late concertos; orchestras usually schedule the same five concertos. I felt very strongly that I should focus on these early concertos instead, and not the well-known ones.

Q: Did you know from the start with whom you wanted to record this album?

DG: Part of the adventure was to bring my own musician friends and colleagues along for the journey, to invite the outstanding young musicians I knew who had the same kind of love for Mozart that I have. So I assembled an orchestra of young and brilliant soloists, instead of working with an existing orchestra. At first, Vanguard thought I was being unrealistic _ they were stunned that I wanted to do the project this way and that I wanted to play my own cadenzas and conduct myself. But this music is so full of energy, happiness, and light, and it was important that everyone associated with the project really believed in this unique spirit. These concertos show a Mozart who is ready for life, not just the son of his father taking him around the world, not just this little prodigy. This is a Mozart who had something powerful to say. Something deeper.

Q: And did the sessions go well?

DG: It was extremely complicated to get all the players together for one week of rehearsals and recordings. These are musicians who tour and travel frequently. For that reason alone it was incredibly exciting to get everyone together in one place in NYC _ 25 musicians I knew well and felt excited to share this music with. This was just one of the most amazing periods of my life.

Q: Did you feel like you were staking your own artistic ground by recording these concertos, like Mozart did by writing them?

DG: This truly felt like a realization of what I believe in with the arts: to create projects just the way you envision them, and not be dragged around by "the business"‹to share the love of music with artists you respect and admire; to share it with people you really want to work with. I was proud to be in this adventure with them. I knew they were as thrilled as me with early Mozart.

Q: Were you surprised by how well this CD was received?

DG: It was already so wild that the recording just got made, so I was really overjoyed with the response. It was the first major project I had done in my life as a soloist. It mattered to me artistically, but having this kind of critical response was overwhelming. I was also genuinely happy that the people who bought the record said that it was a big discovery to hear these concertos. This moved me the most.

Q: And now the album has been taken on by naÇve, which will re-package it and re-release it.

DG: Not long after making the Mozart album, I signed an exclusive contract with naÇve. I released my first solo CD with naÇve in November, this "fantasy" album, and one of the most natural things was to take back this Mozart recording and re-release it with this label with which I have this wonderful new relationship. It seems even more natural now that it get re-released because I believe that the album played an important role in my being invited to play all of the Mozart sonatas in Verbier this summer.

Q: But before that happens in Verbier, you're playing them in a marathon lasting eleven hours in Paris. Was this your idea?

DG: I knew I'd want to do this once in my life and I thought, why not now? This concert presenter in Paris invited me to play the "fantasy" program last fall and it went extremely well. After that we continued discussing other projects. The presenter knew I liked adventure and crazy projects and then the idea came up for the marathon. That's exactly the kind of project I live for. I think it's a great opportunity for people who've heard excerpts of the sonatas to hear them as a whole, as a complete cycle. I believe it can give a very special vision of what these sonatas are _ from his early teenage years until his late years. It gives a spectrum of his entire life. It's certainly not a project that can happen every day! It's a wonderful challenge.

Q: Are there huge differences between early Mozart sonatas and later ones? How do they evolve?

DG: All of Mozart's early music _ sonatas, symphonies, operas _ have a kind of freshness and energy that is overwhelming. People often think his earlier music is cute and nice, but not very profound. But I don't see that at all. Many of these earlier works are real masterpieces _ small miracles. It's this young kid emerging and saying what he has to say _ you're witnessing his becoming this composer we now know. Beyond that, there are elements in this early music that he would never use again later. He takes risks musically in his early works: crazy harmonies, unusual modulations _ things that don't always happen in later works. On the other hand, the later pieces show us more of the ingenious Mozart we know. The art is all there, everything is flowing, simply perfect, and the genius is 100% there. It's amazing that these two phases come from the same composer _ both are unique.

The later works have a sort of profoundness and perfection that many of the earlier works don't have. In the later works he starts shifting to a more tragic and tormented voice that wasn't there before. He touches a dark part of himself that wasn't there until that point. Some of the slow movements in the sonatas become small requiems. But what unites Mozart's early and late works, though, are the operatic elements. From the earliest works to the latest works, Mozart is a man of the theater. You see that human voice in all his works _ always someone singing, whether he's just eight years old, or 35 and about to die. It's always about singing, speaking _ a human voice that has something to say. For me, the sonatas are like mini-operas. Each time I sit down to play one, I feel like I'm opening a curtain and there are characters and scenes to convey.

Q: We have frequently seen major international soloists give their complete Beethoven sonatas cycles _ it's a goal that many pianists strive for _ but you don't hear that with Mozart. Does that surprise you?

DG: That's true. Mozart is hard_ã_ Beethoven is hard too, of course, but perhaps many soloists feel Mozart is like a magical garden that you need a password to. I don't think many artists feel a natural impulse to want to go there. The Beethoven sonatas are like the pillars on a Greek temple. They are huge monuments. The Mozart sonatas aren't viewed this way, so people are less attracted to them. Pianists frequently have Beethoven sonatas in their repertoire, but not so much Mozart. In my class at Juilliard, one of the teachers once asked all the piano students how many Mozart sonatas they played and the average was two works per person. With Beethoven the answer was quite different. Beethoven is more universal _ he wants to embrace the world. With Mozart, it's more personal, more intimate.

Q: Clearly Mozart is a touchstone composer for you.

DG: Even on my "Fantasy" disc, which includes eight different composers, Mozart is right in the middle of this program that's shaped like a mirror. I didn't plan this _ but it happened! It was his Fantasy K. 475 that I recorded, and it's the only non-sonata work that I'll be playing at Verbier; it's sort of a 19th sonata.


Q: With so many Mozart sonatas to choose from, do you have any particular favorites?

DG: Well, the "Alla Turca" Sonata probably has one of the most famous tunes in music history _ there are more phone ring tones and TV jingles using it than just about anything else. But one of the most stunning and overwhelmingly moving sonatas is the A minor one. The complete sonata is like a requiem. I always call this sonata "the beginning of the end." It's like Mozart saying, "From now on it's only going to be my inner voice _ not dictated by fashions, patron needs, all of that." He wrote it in Paris after his mother's death, and before his Vienna years _ it's extremely tragic. It's really a composer's voice _ his true, singular, honest voice.

Q: Are there any plans to record some of these?

DG: It's definitely on my mind as one of the next projects with naÇve!

Q: Have you played at the Verbier Festival before?

DG: I've visited the festival and heard some extraordinary concerts there, but this is my first time there as a performer.

Q: The complete Mozart sonatas: that's quite a debut!

DG: I think this is something I'll remember for my entire life.

Q: And Mozart is on the program for your concert in December at the 92nd Street Y, here in New York City. You'll be back with the same forces _ your Suedama Ensemble [Suedama is Amadeus backwards). It's an unusual program!

DG: As I was performing more and more Mozart and recording it I started being more intrigued by his personality and his involvement with Freemasonry. As I was doing some research I decided that I wanted to venture into this direction. At the same time I discovered that there was a lot in common between Freemasonry and Kaballah. I'm Israeli, born and raised in Jerusalem. Somehow those two philosophies _ they are not religions _ have many similarities between them. As an artist, I can find a common ground between them and present it with music. Mozart will be a big star of the night. We're also going to have a world premiere by a young Israeli composer, Jonathan Keren _ a triple concerto for piano, clarinet, narrator, and orchestra. The text will be based on Kabbalistic themes. There's also a connection with Mozart's Masonic funeral music, which is on the program. And because I deeply love Rameau _ who was a freemason too _ I also wanted to have the overture to Zoroastre on the program. This actually might very well be the first Masonic opera, written long before Mozart's Magic Flute. It's a fascinating opera _ one of the greatest masterpieces of the French Baroque.

Q: Isn't there a Mozart concerto on the program too?

DG: I'll play and conduct one of his concertos that come from the period when he was extremely involved with Freemasonry in Vienna: Concerto No. 22. I'm very excited about this project. And it's particularly rewarding to work with a young composer. Having the world premiere of a new work on the same program with Mozart: I'd be happy to do this kind of thing for the rest of my life. It's very important to me to perform new music in my recitals and concerts. I want to be involved with what's going on today and not just with the music that was written in the past. I feel it is crucial, as an artist, to be involved in the present and in the future. It can be done in so many ways: playing contemporary music, commissioning new works, or even putting screws and bolts in the piano to play the John Cage sonatas, as I did in the "Fantasy" album.

Q: Quick personal question: where's home for you, these days?

DG: I basically have three homes: New York, Paris, and Jerusalem. I share my time between these places, three cities that I'm very strongly in love with and in which I need to spend a certain amount of time every year. But the most wonderful thing is having so many extraordinary friends in these cities.

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Interview courtesy of 21C Media Group, Inc.

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