In Conversation with Dorian Bandy

A new book exploring Mozart's showmanship
Image by Stephanie Seldlbauer.

With a repertoire spanning four centuries and six instruments, and leading a fiercely varied career as a conductor, baroque violinist, and historical keyboardist, Professor Dorian Komanoff Bandy has an extensive record of musical excellence.

At the core of his musical life, though, is Mozart—a composer whose operas, symphonies, concertos, and sonatas have long held pride of place in Bandy’s repertoire. Now he has published a book entitled Mozart the Performer  (The University of Chicago Press, available on Amazon)– an engaging study shedding light on the celebrated composer’s own career as a performing pianist and improviser, and exploring the reasons why, centuries after his death, Mozart’s music still holds such timeless appeal.

In this Q&A, Bandy tells us more about Mozart and his music. There’s even more to discover in thebook, but in the meantime, here’s Dorian Bandy in conversation!

You’ve written extensively about the life and music of Mozart. What drove you to take another deep look at this canonical figure through your new book?

Mozart has always been central to my life and career. I grew up playing his music with my parents and brother; he was a presence in all my formative chamber and orchestral experiences; and he was the first composer whose operas I really fell in love with and conducted. All this is to say, the main reason I wanted to take a deep look at his music is, first and foremost, that I adore it! Having spent decades playing and conducting Mozart, I felt I had something to add to the discussions about his compositions and style. I’ve developed a very particular relationship with his music over the years, and I wanted to invite other people to hear him the way I do.

But even beyond my own personal love, there are other reasons, too, that I wanted to write about Mozart. Mozart’s music has been a source of fascination for more than two and a half centuries, ever since news of the six-year-old prodigy swept across Europe. And since then, the world has interpreted his output through various lenses. There was, in the early 19th century, the "Romantic Mozart": that archetypal misunderstood genius, writing sublime music but receiving a pauper’s burial. We’ve since seen the Victorian Mozart, the angelic Mozart, the gloomy Mozart, the cackling Mozart of Amadeus, the graceful Mozart, and many others besides. I felt that what we lacked was an engaging portrait of the showman Mozart—the human whose income depended on his ability to go on stage and get a rise out of listeners. I’ve long felt that a distinctly virtuosic persona is present across his works, not only in obvious places like the piano concertos (which are showy by definition) but even in the more intimate chamber output and in his emotionally charged operas. My goal in writing the book was to celebrate this under-explored side of Mozart’s craft—and, again, to help people listen to his music with virtuosity and showmanship in mind.

What’s something surprising you learned about Mozart while researching and writing this book?

My favourite unexpected discovery was that Mozart's obsession with performing extended beyond musical performance, encompassing also acting and dancing. He participated in pantomimes as a child and continued to ham up the comic role of Commedia dell’ Arte’s Harlequin, a clown, well into adulthood. When I began work on the book, I knew that I would be examining Mozart’s stage antics as embodied in the music; but I was delighted to learn just how thoroughly his entire being was aligned with this aspect of music-making. He owned a clown costume!

What are some Mozart “isms” that set him apart from musicians before or since?

There are many! What comes to mind immediately is Mozart’s fabled ability to tread a fine line between joy and sadness—to write music that jokes one moment and weeps the next. But perhaps my own favourite Mozart “ism”—and the one I explore in my favourite section of the book (near the end of Chapter 5)—is what I call Mozart’s “aesthetic neutrality,” felt particularly keenly in his operas. Mozart does not judge the characters he writes. He doesn’t write “evil” music for characters like the Count or Don Giovanni; he doesn’t judge the deceitful lovers in Così fan tutte; and he doesn’t write facile “pretty” music for Susanna and the Countess. Instead, Mozart is one of the first composers, maybe the very first, to have taken seriously the challenge of being a great psychologist in addition to a great musician. He puts himself into the positions of his characters, and rather than judging them, he writes the kind of music that he thinks they might want to sing, given what he thinks they would make of the situations they encounter. Even among later operatic composers, such a willingness to take characters seriously on their own terms is rare indeed!

The same ideal applies to Mozart’s instrumental music. Whether we’re dealing with key areas or the narrative shape of a concerto, Mozart is one of the few composers who does not level judgment at the musical materials at his disposal. Unlike many of his contemporaries, for instance, Mozart didn't seem to think of C minor or D minor as inherently bad places to be; his music never “wants” to be anywhere other than where it is. He had a gift for taking the maximum pleasure and delight in whatever phrase he was developing at a given time.

As an educator, how do you help your students interpret Mozart?

My main priority, working with students on Mozart, is to help them sense the madcap variety of characters and viewpoints implied within individual pieces, and to help them bring these characters to life in their own performances. Mozart is one of the most restless composers I know: he jams together, even in a single phrase, a dizzying array of voices, registers, and expressive states. The challenge of playing or singing his music is not just hitting the notes but being on constant lookout for shifts of tone—a fanfare one moment, a courtly dance the next, a love song the next. Opening students’ ears to the kaleidoscope that is Mozart's style—this is one of the greatest joys of being an educator.

What’s a work by Mozart that never fails to transport you? What makes it so special?

It’s difficult to choose just one! But if I can pick a set of works, it would be the trilogy of operas he composed with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. These pieces are extraordinary, and not only for the way Mozart deftly brings us inside the minds and hearts of the characters. These operas amount to a veritable treatise on human nature at its best. In each, the characters strive to understand the meaning of friendship and love. Susanna, from Figaro, is a particular inspiration in this respect: she sings duets with every other major character in the piece, effortlessly inhabiting their diverse styles while still somehow asserting herself and ennobling everyone she encounters. Along the way, she teaches her fiancé Figaro that love can be both playful and serious. Even in the darker worlds of Don Giovanni and Così, a similarly optimistic vision is at work. I never fail to experience a measure of awe when I consider that Mozart brought these artworks into the world in his early 30’s, two and a half centuries ago.

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