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Robert Greenberg and the Alexander String Quartet to examine Mozart in Vienna

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Three years ago, I described a subscription to a series of lectures by music historian Robert Greenberg supplemented with performances by the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) as a “Christmas gift for the serious listener.” This time I might suggest that the subject matter of the next such series may be of broader interest. The four lecture-performances to be given beginning next month will be the first part of a two-part study entitled Mozart in Vienna. The reason that I think this might be of more general interest is that many may recall that Peter Shaffer’s play (and later the film) Amadeus begins when the 25-year-old Mozart moves to Vienna in 1781. Greenberg’s project will thus provide an opportunity to sort the historical record out from Shaffer’s embellishments for the sake of dramatism.

By collaborating with the ASQ players (violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson) Greenberg can examine this topic through Mozart’s productivity in composing chamber music for strings, an area that Shaffer ignored in preference for his operatic efforts. Furthermore, by focusing on opera, Shaffer overlooked the man who may well have been Mozart’s strongest influence in Vienna, Joseph Haydn. Indeed, the close relationship between Mozart and Haydn was established and sealed through the time they spent together playing string quartets. As a result of that experience, between 1782 and 1785, Mozart composed six quartets, which he dedicated to Haydn: K. 387 in G major, K. 421 in D minor, K. 428 in E-flat major, K. 458 in B-flat major, K. 464 in A major, and K. 465 in C major. Through these quartets, Mozart responded to some of Haydn’s most adventurous approaches to composition with a barrage of adventurous maneuvers of his own.

All six of these quartets will be discussed and performed during the first three sessions (two at each session, performed in chronological order) of Greenberg’s study. For the final session ASQ will be joined by a guest artist, pianist Sarah Cahill. The program for this session will continue the chronology with the two quartets for piano and string trio that Mozart composed in 1785 and 1786, K. 478 in G minor and K. 493 in E-flat major. Thus, the first part of Greenberg’s project will cover the time from Mozart’s arrival in Vienna in 1781 through 1786, leaving the second part to address the remaining five years of his life.

Each program in this first part will take place on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m. at the SFJAZZ Center (201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street). The dates of the programs are January 25, February 22, March 22, and April 5. These programs will be presented under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP); and further information may be found at an event page for the entire series on the SFP Web site. Prices for the full series are $180, $150, and $95, while individual tickets may be purchased for $50, $42, and $27. Both series and individual tickets may be acquired through hyperlinks on the event page or by calling 415-398-6449.

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