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Pianist finishes what Mozart left undone.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

37th OREGON BACH FESTIVAL

CONCERT PREVIEW Oregon Bach Festival opens with the reconstructed Mozart Mass in C Minor What: Helmuth Rilling conducts the Bach Festival chorus and orchestra in a performance of music scholar Robert Levin's completion of W.A. Mozart's unfinished Mass. Soloists are sopranos Simone Nold and Anne-Carolyn Schluter, tenor Corby Welch, and bass Philip Carmichael. Where: Hult Center's Silva Concert Hall, Seventh Avenue and Willamette Street When: 8 p.m. Friday Tickets: $15 to $49 through the Hult box office, 682-5000

Imagine giving the Venus de Milo a pair of arms. What would they look like? What position would they be in? How long would her fingers be?

That was the kind of problem faced by composer and music scholar Robert Levin when he sat down to complete Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Mass in C Minor, which Mozart had not finished at the time of his death in 1791.

Mozart had composed most of the Mass, but not all of it. And Levin, who teaches music at Harvard University, thought he might just finish the job.

You can hear the final product of Mozart and Levin's combined labors when the Oregon Bach Festival opens at the Hult Center on Friday night with a presentation of the C Minor Mass the way it might have sounded, had Mozart completed it.

Levin, a pianist also known for his ability to improvise Mozart embellishments and cadenzas live during concert performances, has been fascinated for most of his life with Mozart. He completed three short musical fragments by Mozart for his senior thesis at Harvard in 1968, traveling to Europe to research the composer's manuscripts.

Mozart's music lends itself to this kind of completion because it is both highly intellectual and very craftsmanlike, Levin said in a telephone interview.

There is also a lot of Mozart out there that remained unfinished, a fact that surprised the young Levin when he began working on completing the musical fragments.

"I had no idea there was a significant number of Mozart fragments," he said. "No composer of Mozart's magnitude left such a number of real torsos - viable pieces that were unfinished."

The large number of fragments results, to some degree, from Mozart's manner of working on music.

That has become clear through music scholarship in the past few decades, Levin said. Musicologists have studied handwriting, ink composition and paper type used by Mozart and come up with a clear picture of the order in which Mozart wrote things down.

They concluded he apparently was able to visualize entire compositions with such perfect clarity that he only needed to write the parts down, one complete part at a time.

"He would write down the principal voice of the piece from beginning to end," Levin said. "Then he would come back and write the next most important thing in. And the third pass he would do the fill-ins, the trumpets and drums. And sometimes he would make a fourth pass, and polish."

In addition, Levin said, Mozart often worked on notating more than one piece of music at a time. That means he must have been able to keep the complete text of several pieces of new music in his head at once.

"He has three piano concertos whose three movements are all being drafted from beginning to end, simultaneously," Levin said. "The truly hair-raising thing is, by the time he is putting in the third layer he doesn't need to change the previous layers. He has them exactly right."

This facility meant that Mozart was able to turn easily from one project to another as he received commissions, setting aside partially transcribed work to return to months or years later.

Levin called Mozart a "short-order cook" among composers, meaning he could quickly turn from one commission to another.

"When he had the opportunity to write an opera, he wrote it," Levin said. "Then someone comes in and says `I need a cantata.' He would drop what was coming to his mind and make his money. The trick is, from his point of view, to notate the work in such a way that he has enough on paper that if he is interrupted for any significant period of time he can come back and remember what he had in mind."

The handwriting and paper and ink analysis show that a large number of completed works by Mozart remained fragments for anywhere from six to 10 years - hence the large number of fragments that remained uncompleted at his death.

When a friend proposed to Levin - then an undergraduate and already a Mozart addict - that he try his hand at completing a few fragments, he wasn't at first enthusiastic.

"My first reaction was there are a lot of easier ways to make a complete fool of yourself," he said.

Levin has made a name for himself in the classical music world by doing articulate and informed composition at the keyboard, just as, he says, Mozart himself would have done.

His Mozart completions have built on the knowledge he gained from that kind of improvisation.

"Trying to improvise in the style of Mozart is the equivalent of running," he said. "Composing in the style of Mozart is like walking. You can't run if you can't walk."

Levin worked with Bach Festival artistic director Helmuth Rilling in 1991 on a commission to complete the Mozart Requiem, which was also unfinished, for Rilling's Bachakademie in Stuttgart, Germany. The festival will conclude on July 16 with a performance of Levin's completion of the Requiem.

"Why couldn't he do it with that other fragment from the sacred pieces of Mozart, the Mass?" Rilling said. "This is really very well done. When listening to the Mass as it is now, you would always think this is very much like Mozart. Of course we will never know how Mozart would have done it."

Levin says there are creative limits to what can be done in completing a work by another composer. You can't, he admits, just follow personal inspiration; the music you produce has to have precedent in the original composer's existing work.

"There is the danger of going off into left field and doing something on your own," he said. "I just don't want to go there. I accept the fact that in a sense my caution may cause some people to voice disappointment or criticism."

Rilling conducted the world premiere of Levin's reconstruction of the Mass on Jan. 15 in New York's Carnegie Hall, and will conduct Friday's performance here.

New York Times critic Allan Kozinn gave a rave review to the Carnegie Hall performance, calling it `a glorious, fully Mozartean vision of a complete Mass.'

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Robert Levin first began working on some Mozart fragments when he was in college at Harvard in the 1960s.
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Title Annotation:Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 29, 2006
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