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Interview: New music specialists Present Music turns to Mozart for season opener

Present Music is going "a little naughty and ironic" on the new music ensemble's season opening concert, according to artistic director Kevin Stalheim.

So what is "naughty and ironic" for a new music ensemble? Try Mozart. His "Gran Partita" for 12 winds and string bass, to be specific.

"Hearing Mozart on one of our concerts is somewhat radical," a chuckling Stalheim said in a recent interview. "I hear from people all the time that what they like about our concerts is that they never know what they're going to get."

But programming the Mozart is more than a "radical" idea.

It actually touches something near and dear to Stalheim's heart. There may be no one in town with a deeper working knowledge of contemporary art music than Stalheim, but he said he is, at heart, "a classical musician."

Stalheim said putting together last season's "Connecting in the Chamber" concerts, which tied new music to its older roots and inspirations, "sort of reignited my connection to older music. The old guys are really my favorites."

After training in trumpet at the Oberlin Conservatory and earning a master of music degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Stalheim began the Milwaukee Music Ensemble in 1982, which later became Present Music.

"When we started off, we did a more broad-based selection of music," Stalheim explained. "We played Brahms, Dvorak and some Bach cantatas. So it's not like these guys are foreign to my way of thinking."

He explained how he arrived at the "Gran Partita."

"I've always want to do John Adams' 'Grand Pianola Music' on a program," Stalheim said. "It's fun and crazy and it goes from subtle to over the top. When it's really done well, the over-the-top stuff really works."

Stalheim explained that, "Adams is really aware of and inspired by older music, naming some of those composers as his inspirations."

He quoted Adams' own story about the inspiration for "Grand Pianola Music," saying, "He (Adams) had a dream that there were two limousines driving behind him and they turned into two grand pianos. He started hearing Chopin, Beethoven, even Hanon piano exercises — just a blur of sounds and styles."

The mélange of musical quotes, styles and sounds made Stalheim "smile and laugh," when he first heard it. But when it debuted in 1982, members of the audience responded with boos.

"It's interesting to think of John Adams having his work booed early on in his career, given how widely beloved he has become since," PM ensemble member Cory Smythe wrote in an email, sent between performances in Brazil last weekend.

"I've been lucky to work with Adams a handful of times and I've been struck by the dazzling array of classical music references he'll cite in rehearsal in order to convey the effect he's after in one of his passages," Smythe continued. "I guess maybe it took a little while before classical audiences realized he was speaking their language after all."

"Grand Pianola Music" requires two pianos, something Stalheim said Present Music almost never has. So ... why not program Adams' "Hallelujah Junction" for two grand pianos on the same program?

The piece often finds the two pianos playing slightly offset identical melodies, which creates a festival of counting for the performers.

"I'm trying to enjoy as much sunshine as possible here on my last day in Salvador, Brazil, knowing that in about 24 hours I'll be holed up at home with 'Hallelujah Junction' and a metronome," Smythe wrote.

All of which leads back to the "Gran Partita," which is actually Mozart's Serenade No. 10 for winds and bass. "Gran Partita" appears on the manuscript, but not in Mozart's handwriting. Gran instead of Grand may have been a misspelling or a result of non-standardized spelling. Whatever the case, the spelling is always used when referring to the piece.

Like the two pianos, Stalheim said he almost never has as many wind players on the stage as the "Grand Pianola Music" requires. "It's huge," Stalheim said, "and we can't always afford that."

"It just wasn't far for me to go to think about the 'Gran Partita,'" Stalheim said, calling it one of the all-time great wind pieces ever written, along with the Stravinsky Symphony of Winds.

Staying true to the "you never know what you're going to get" theory of programming PM programs, this program will add Luciano Berio to the roster of composers, featuring ensemble member Eric Segnitz performing Berio's "Sequenza VIII," one of a series of 14 virtuoso pieces Berio wrote for solo instruments.

As to conducting the Mozart? Stalheim has spent the summer listening to every recording of the piece he could find, comparing and studying, all to be "a little naughty and ironic."

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