When Mozart sat down in 1778 to write a symphony for the Paris orchestra, he had a lot of things working against him: The fame of Gluck, whose opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” was still wildly popular. The particular musical requests of his Paris patrons. And the sudden death of his mother, who’d brought the 22-year-old composer to Paris to jump start his career.
When Tacoma composer Greg Youtz sat down to write a piece for the Northwest Sinfonietta’s concerts this weekend, things were a lot easier. Youtz’s “Wolfgang at the Gates” — premiering alongside the work of Mozart, Gluck and Sam Jones’ cello concerto (with soloist Julian Schwarz) — riffs not only on Mozart’s “Paris” symphony, but on the whole concept of composing one thing while your life is doing quite another.
The News Tribune spoke to Youtz, who juggles composing with an academic career at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and Sinfonietta director Christophe Chagnard, who has had three works premiered with the ensemble and is about to step down to pursue composition, to find out more about the Mozart-Gluck-Youtz triangle.
Q: Was this a commission by the Sinfonietta?
Greg Youtz: It was a commission of sorts; there was no money exchanged. I had proposed a French horn concerto, actually, and Christophe said the soloist roster was already filled, and did I have anything else? I said, shall I write something? He said, well, we don’t have any money (for it). So I said, I’m not interested in the money, I just want to have a piece of mine performed by your wonderful orchestra.
Q: And how did the idea for “Wolfgang at the Gates” come about?
Youtz: Well, I asked Christophe what was on the rest of the program. They’d already planned to play some music from Gluck’s “Orfeo,” and Mozart’s Symphony no. 31 in D, the “Paris.” I thought about Mozart and Gluck, and realized there was a story to be told. Mozart had just moved to Paris to get more work, he was trying to find a foothold. He had to write whatever people asked him to. At the time, Gluck was hugely popular — I imagine Mozart swimming upstream in a current of Gluck! He was commissioned to write for the symphony, and right in the middle of writing his mother died. It’s fascinating: The “Paris” symphony is very charming, very upbeat, as it had to be. And Mozart writes a letter to his father (back in Salzburg) saying how wonderful it all went. He completely omitted mention his mother’s death. One month later, he writes a letter telling his father about it — and I wonder, what’s going on in his head at the time? He surely must have had Gluck’s “Orfeo” music swirling around in his head and been thinking a bit like Orfeo, wishing he could go to the Underworld, to the Gates of Hell, and bring his mother back.
Q: So how do you bring that out in your piece? How much of Mozart and Gluck is in it?
Youtz: It was an absolute blast to write this. I manage to get in all the main themes from the “Paris” symphony, and a lot of Gluck too, from the “Dance of the Furies” and (one of) Orfeo’s arias. It starts with a three-note theme, like a doom theme, which is interrupted by the timpani. Of course, in Mozart’s symphonies, the timpani player is pretty bored the whole time — I make the part like a solo … like all this darkness inside Mozart’s head as he’s writing these charming tunes.
Christophe Chagnard: I think it’s a wonderful idea. When you work with great material like Mozart, you can’t go wrong. Composers did that all the time back then, as long as you put your individual stamp on it. I’m writing a piece now where I’m quoting Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Debussy. The danger is cliché — it has to be done smartly and elegantly. I think Greg’s done that.
Q: Mozart had to work with a lot of specifications from his patrons, like a three-note opening, and something festive. How much do orchestras these days tell you how to compose?
Youtz: Not much specifically. But for me it still applies. Some people say you shouldn’t pander to the masses; that you should write for art. To me, that’s nonsense. Music for me is about communication: You write for the conductor, for the players, for the community.
Chagnard: I don’t tell composers at all what to write. Just the technicalities, like the orchestration and length of the piece. I trust the composer.
Q: What are the obstacles for orchestras to play new music?
Chagnard: There’s money, of course. If it was up to me, I would do a new work at every concert. (The Sinfonietta has premiered 15 works over its 25-year-history.) There’s this assumption that audiences don’t like new music — that’s absolutely not true.
Q: And is it still as hard for composers to prove themselves as it was in Mozart’s time?
Youtz: I think it’s rather similar. Like Mozart, if you want to make your career, you need to go where the centers of money and power are. In Mozart’s time, that was Paris. If I wanted to seriously compete for the Pulitzer, I’d have to move to New York. But I think of myself as a happy regional composer who writes what he wants.
Q: Are there still fashions in composers — and is Greg Youtz fashionable in Tacoma?
Youtz: That would be for the audience to say! But I think I’m doing just fine in Tacoma. People seem to like what I write.
Chagnard: Greg’s music speaks to everyone: It’s accessible, fresh, intellectual and well-crafted. He’s a composer that thinks a lot, beyond merely the music. He puts a lot of philosophy in there.