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Program Notes: Shaham Plays Mozart - available until
Costa Mesa, California
Friday, 7 May 2021 - 7:00 PM
Presenter: Pacific Symphony
Ensemble: Pacific Symphony
Conductor: Carl St.Clair
Shaham Plays Mozart (Thursdays @ 7)

From the Vault: Internationally celebrated pianist Orli Shaham, a “first-rate Mozartean” according to the Chicago Tribune, takes center stage in Mozart’s sunny Concerto No. 17, with the famous third movement theme inspired by the composer’s melodic pet starling.

This performance, originally captured on May 20, 2017, will be available for FREE streaming on our YouTube and Facebook channels from April 8 through May 7.


Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation Virtual Classical Series

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 17
Scored for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, solo piano
Duration: 30 minutes

The most salient and interesting fact about Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17—and the most charming, at that!—is its nickname, the “starling concerto,” an homage to the composer’s pet starling. The concerto’s celebrated last movement is said to be based on the tuneful whistling of Mozart’s avian pet. Possible?

Well, we know that Mozart purchased a starling on May 27, 1784, less than three weeks before his pupil Barbara Ployer first played this concerto at the house of her uncle, who was Salzburg’s agent at the imperial court in Vienna. We also know that Mozart adored the bird and made much of its musical abilities. Three years later, when it died, Mozart staged a funeral of sufficient pomp and ceremony to rival a state occasion, with veiled mourners and solemn hymns; the composer himself wrote an elegiac poem for the occasion.

But many analyses, including an online account by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King, conclude that the starling mimicked Mozart’s invented melody, rather than the other way around. When your intrepid annotator consulted an ornithologist on this subject, she confirmed that the species of starling owned by Mozart, sturnus vulgaris, is a virtual genius of mimicry, with a facility far exceeding that of the more colorful parrot. Mozart is said to have exclaimed “das war schön!” while listening to the beloved bird while working on this concerto. It seems likely that he was admiring its rendition of his own melodies.

The fundamental reality of piano concertos for Mozart (and for Beethoven after him): they were showpieces designed to display skill in composition and performance. Dramatic flair was a plus on both counts, and perhaps for this reason, Mozart’s 1784 concertos generally open with emphatic, military sounding introductions. The 17th, however, does not follow this pattern. The concerto opens in a relaxed manner, and as its first movement unfolds, its development has a natural, discursive quality. In fact, Mozart includes some features—an emphatic use of the woodwinds and some adventurous, meandering modulations—that sound natural in his hands, but were actually quite unusual for the time.

In the central movement, the strength of the woodwinds continues in an even more unexpected way, with the conventionally dominant string section abruptly withdrawing shortly after the orchestral discourse begins. The concerto’s finale, too, is unusual—built not on a conventional rondo, but rather around five variations on a theme, followed by an energetic presto. Mozart may have had the success of this movement in mind when he composed the equally unusual central movement of his next concerto; it also takes the form of a theme and five variations, eventually arriving at a highly elaborated coda.

Program Note by Michael Clive

Program Click for more info
Mozart: Concerto for Piano no 17 in G major, K 453
Available Recordings
I - Allegro
II - Andante
III - Allegretto
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