November 2, 2023
Ever since 1959, my first summer as a participant at the Marlboro Music Festival, I have always been given more than adequate sleeping accommodations. One summer in the 1960s, however, for reasons unknown to me, the Festival was short of beds. They asked me whether I’d be willing to sleep on a makeshift mattress temporarily, in a classroom building called Dalrymple. Of course I agreed. What did I care about sleeping on a classroom floor for a while? I was young, and thrilled to be delving into the great chamber music repertoire while being mentored by some of the world’s greatest musicians.
My parents, who happened to be visiting me at the time, were not so pleased with my sleeping arrangement. Mother told flutist Nancy and her violinist husband John Dalley, good friends and Marlboro participants, that she was worried a mouse might run into my open mouth while I slept. Nonetheless, I went to bed that first night in Dalrymple unconcerned about mice or anything else, and looking forward to the next day of music making.
That next day started badly, however. At what seemed an ungodly early hour, I was awakened by the sound of someone practicing the piano. Unbeknownst to me, the adjacent classroom had been converted for the summer into a Festival practice studio. For a while I tried to drown out the music by covering my head with a pillow, but I soon gave up and went to breakfast. My hope was that the early morning practicing was a one-time event. Perhaps the pianist, whoever he or she was, had had a bad night and decided to practice rather than continue to toss and turn. But, to my consternation, the pianist continued to wake me the next morning, and the next, and the next after that.
Despite my unhappiness with the situation, I couldn’t help but recognize the actual music being practiced: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Trio K. 496 in G major. To be more precise, it was the first movement’s opening phrase for piano alone that the pianist seemed to especially focus on. And since the pianist’s routine seemed to vary little each day, I slowly began to become involved in my half-sleep with that opening moment. Even for Mozart, the music was remarkable, an unusually lengthy statement of good-natured and playful twists and turns that seemed never to want to end. I could tell immediately that the pianist was excellent, but also that the music presented serious challenges. The long, winding phrase, eighteen bars in length, was usually played first in tempo, then more slowly, and finally with stops and starts. The pianist was obviously experimenting with the shape of each small section in order to make sense of the whole. I lay in bed marveling at the melody’s breathtaking beauty, which felt as if Mozart had composed it as a spontaneous improvisation, yet with an underlying note-perfect structure.
A few days later, I finally ran into the mystery pianist, Zaidee Parkinson, as we were both leaving Dalrymple. Zaidee was a gifted pianist I had come to know only that summer at Marlboro. Greeting each other, I refrained from divulging that I had been listening to her every morning from my front-row mattress. After all, since my sleeping quarters remained unchanged for the moment, the last thing I wanted was to make Zaidee self-conscious.
But also, I had become Zaidee’s one-person fan club. Each day, those eighteen bars had grown in logic, freedom, and assurance. I have to admit sheepishly that once in a while I even talked to my pillow under my breath as if it were Zaidee. Things like, “So much better than yesterday, Zaidee. Keep going!”
Forgive me for not remembering whether Marlboro finally found a proper bed for me elsewhere, or whether Zaidee simply stopped practicing next door, but, sadly, I never heard her again, either alone or with the trio’s other members. A pity, for Zaidee now played Mozart’s bewitching melody with poise and fluency. It remained for Zaidee to go one step further, to conjure up some kind of magic with those opening eighteen bars.
But that’s always the challenge. How do you capture the miracle of Mozart’s breathtaking creativity when there is no operating manual available, no one to instruct you how to connect brain, heart, and soul with the incandescent and at times other-worldly essence of his music?
Until this summer, I’d never heard a live performance of Mozart’s G-major Piano Trio K. 496. But on a Wednesday night in the Marlboro dining hall, the trio was performed by Mitsuko Uchida, piano, Geneva Lewis, violin, and Ben Solomonow, cello. The work’s three movements were exquisitely played, but, as you can imagine, my attention was initially focused on that first phrase, which had been forever branded in my memory. Mitsuko plunged into the opening with ease and assurance, but also with a feeling of joyful spontaneity, as if she were encountering this wondrous music for the very first time.
After the concert, I happened to walk past Dalrymple, where Zaidee long ago had practiced that single passage over and over again. We musicians all tend to follow the same routine, experiment-repeat-experiment-repeat, in the hopes of finding a way to lift Mozart’s music off the printed page—an act of levitation, you might say. Earlier that evening, Mitsuko had done exactly that with her evocative performance.
Mozart himself performed this G-major Piano Trio at his Vienna concerts. An early biographer wrote that “the piano parts are tailored to his own exceptional skills as a pianist—his quickness, neatness, and delicacy…and a sensitivity that went straight to the heart.”
I often wonder how Mozart must have played those first eighteen bars of good-natured and playful twists and turns that seemed never to want to end.
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