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Musical Humor, Seriously

Eine kleine: Conductor reveals the real secret of Mozart's addictive little tune and why we love it

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Naomi, Mercury, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music, April 2013
Mercury performs Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik on April 11, 13 and 20. Photo by © Simon Gentry
Naomi, Mercury, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music, April 2013, Antoine Plante
Antoine Plante, Mercury conductor Photo by © Simon Gentry
Naomi, Mercury, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music, April 2013
Naomi, Mercury, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music, April 2013, Antoine Plante
Naomi Galvez mug shot

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed Eine kleine NachtmusikA Little Night Music as it's familiarly called — he actually never penned a proper title. He simply noted that he completed a serenade.

Although the work was never performed while Mozart was alive, his wife sold the score to a publisher after his death — and the nocturne survived.

Today, Mozart's composition remains one of the most recognizable pieces ever written. It's a timeless classic that mothers add to their music collection to calm little ones at night. A couple might enjoy a conversation over a glass of wine while the melody streams in the background. Summer concerts fill us with a good dose of the serenade.

Houston's Mercury orchestra will perform A Little Night Music as part of its Neighborhood Series, starting Thursday night and running on selected days through April 20 at different venues.

Hence, here's an opportunity to understand what makes Eine kleine so special and defining of the classical period. I sat with Antoine Plante, Mercury founder and artistic director, to get the scoop on this catchy itty-bitty tune.

 "Mozart was known for his sense of humor."

"It's a fairly late work for Mozart, not too far away from his Requiem," Plante explains. "Mozart was known for his sense of humor, and there's a lot of hidden humor in this piece."

After composing A Little Night Music, he wrote something called A Musical Joke, and it's filled with that same humor, Plante says.

Plante was a teenager in music school when he first recognized the melody.

"A group of my friends would play A Little Night Music in the subways during the rush hour commute for money," he jokes. "And it would fill our pockets! People gave money when they started hearing it. I don't know what it was, but something about the piece caused people to have a strong reaction.

"Familiarity is a powerful thing with music."

Unlikely Mozart Legacy

Considering that Mozart didn't give this oeuvre much regard, it's surprising that it has survived and has become not just an iconic tune of the composer, but of the genre in general. Plante thinks it was because Mozart was already a well-known composer who was in control of his composing technique. Mozart, after all, knew how to write good music.

"Also, it's a very spirited piece of music," he adds. "It opens with a fanfare that is really simple — an attention grabber. All the instruments are in unison, as if Mozart says, 'OK, now I have your attention, let's go!' "

 "There should also be an elegant and light quality, which is why we use gut strings with period instruments."

Mercury, which has earned a reputation for energetic interpretations, plans to append the ensemble's unique aesthetic to Mozart's masterpiece. The size of the ensemble is one of them.

"Our 14-string ensemble allows just enough power and surround sound," Plante says. "There should also be an elegant and light quality, which is why we use gut strings with period instruments."

The type of equipment the string players will use also makes a difference.

"The transitional bow that we use fits the piece perfectly," he says. "It allows a light and precise sound, more akin to the sound heard in Mozart's time. The goal, however, is not to create a museum piece. It's to create an organized sound."

Out of curiosity, I inquired if a fifth movement existed.

Although Plante confirmed that there's a missing movement, no one has found it to this day. Therefore it's played as a standard four-movement work.

Given all that, I couldn't help wonder if Mozart would approve being remembered by Eine kleine.

"He wouldn't find offense," Plante says. "I think it's a good example of his greatness."

For the newcomer to a Mercury neighborhood performance, one will find the ensemble up close and personal. Listeners can observe the action and not feel as if the concert is formal or stuffy. The musicians even mingle with the audience afterward to answer any questions.

As I started to leave his office, Plante started to hum the first measures of the tune with a light smile, perhaps recalling those early mornings as a street artist.

He's right on target — it stuck with me for the rest of the day.

___

Mercury will perform A Little Night Music on Thursday, 8 p.m., at Gallery M Squared; Saturday, 2:30 p.m., at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church; Saturday, 8 p.m., at the Rothko Chapel; April 19, 8 p.m., at University of Houston - Clear Lake; and April 20, 8 p.m., at the John Cooper School in The Woodlands. Also on the program are W.F. Bach's Sinfonia in F major, C.P.E. Bach's Sinfonia in B minor and Mozart's Adagio and Fugue.

Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-533-0080.

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