Work towards the festival is coming along nicely, with programmes essentially finalized, rehearsal schedules tentatively ready, programme notes starting to get written, last-minute advertising going out, etc. With all that, it’s regrettably easy to forget about the whole reason for doing all of this: the music!

I’m going to be performing an early Mozart concerto with YEME – actually a J.C. Bach sonata arranged into a concerto by Mozart. It’s a nice little piece, full of sparkle without being overly fluffy, and interesting little quirks without being angsty.

One thing about it though, is that it calls for at least two cadenzas ­— I think I’ll add in a third as well, since I’m a big fan of them. However, I don’t actually have much experience playing cadenzas! It’s not too surprising, since this sort of cadenza is mainly a product of the later 18th century (with the very notable exception of some of the Bach harpsichord concertos), and I generally don’t play much of that repertoire. Actually playing a cadenza isn’t much trouble ­— as I said, I really like the sort of rhythmic freedom that it calls for, whether it’s in a prelude non mesuré or a Frescobaldi toccata. The tricky part is in coming up with something to play, since none of these cadenzas are notated, except with a fermata over a dominant 6-4 chord, implying that you’re supposed to do something there.

Many people, when performing concertos from this time turn to published cadenzas, sometimes coming from sources contemporary to the concerto itself, sometimes written by famous performers from later years. Many people do write their own, but as is often the approach taken with ornamentation, they carefully write out their own cadenza and then follow it every time they perform. I much prefer the idea of improvising a cadenza though. There’s no doubt that this was the usual approach in the 18th century (and much later as well — it’s only relatively recently that it has fallen out of practise). The problem with it is, well, it’s hard!

I’ve been experimenting with improvising cadenzas for the past few weeks, and, while I’ve had a lot of success at coming up with some interesting patterns and melodies, it’s not so easy to make something that hangs together. Generally speaking, I find I can either make something that’s harmonically coherent — starts in one key, moves through some others and gets back where it started without breaking too many rules of counterpoint and harmony — or else I can do something that’s dramatically/rhetorically interesting — builds in mood, and flows from one idea through another and then back to the original thought — but it’s extremely difficult to do both at once! Countless times, I’ve done some really neat twists through unexpected chords, and neatly got back to the home key, but without really making it sound like anything except a series of chords. Other times, I’ve made a spectacularly exciting switch of mood from one end to the other, but then run out of steam before I get back to the right key!

The solution for me, is to not improvise everything blindly, but to start with a road map, and improvise within those limits, so I know where I’m going and can pace myself. But it is awfully fun to just leap in without really knowing where I’ll take it this time! It’s all somewhat new territory for me, in any case, and I hope that soon I’ll be more comfortable with this style of improvising, and will be able to safely dive into something in the middle of a concert.

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