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Mozart's Requiem at Weill Hall

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, November 29, 2019

Mozart’s final work, the powerful Requiem in D minor, has always been cloaked in mystery.

The 35-year-old composer died before he could finish the work, and in the delirium of his final illness, he grew to believe he was preparing it for his own demise. After his death, his wife had it completed in secrecy so she could present it as Mozart’s work and collect the much-needed fee.

“What we have from Mozart himself is probably only 25% of the piece that we know,” said Francesco Lecce-Chong, music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “That means 75% was completed by people who may or may not have received directions from Mozart.”

Some students and friends of the composer ended up finishing the sketches and fragments left behind. Foremost among them was Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and his version has been the one heard in concert halls for more than two centuries.

“I’m like most people — the version that I fell in love with is the traditional one,” said Lecce-Chong, who will lead a newer arrangement of the beloved choral work with the symphony, four soloists and the Sonoma State University Symphonic Chorus in early December.

Lecce-Chong is excited to be working from the score developed in the 1990s by Robert Levin, who he describes as “the greatest living Mozart scholar today.

“He has taken the Süssmayr (version) as the closest thing we have to Mozart, so he’s not trying to create a different piece,” Lecce-Chong explained. “This version simply clarifies and heightens the experience that we know and love.”

Although Süssmayr was a student of Mozart’s, apparently he was not a very skilled one. And Levin used that knowledge to make a few judicious changes, looking at the work from the point of view of Süssmayr himself.

“He asked, ‘If you were rushed and were not a good composer, what are the mistakes you would have made?,’” Lecce-Chong said. “There’s a lot of orchestration issues, text setting issues, and most importantly, Süssmayr cut some of the fugues short, because they are the hardest type of writing to do.”

In Levin’s arrangement, the “Hosanna” fugue is doubled in length and a brand new movement, an “Amen” fugue, has been added, Lecce-Chong said.
“Mozart always did a fugue for ‘Amen,’ and they found a fragment on the back of one of the manuscript pieces,” he said. “So Levin takes those 12 bars and turns it into a glorious fugue.”

Lecce-Chong, who performed the Mozart Requiem with the Eugene Symphony earlier this month, has personally purchased the parts to Levin’s arrangement of the Mozart Requiem and had them notated for how he wants the orchestra to play it, with tempi, dynamics and articulation markings.

“Owning the parts also allows me to make small, personal alternations in how certain instruments are used that will be completely unique to these performances,” LecceChong said.

The Santa Rosa Symphony’s December concert set, on Dec. 7, 8 and 9, will also include American composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Records from a Vanishing City,” a tone poem based on her memories of growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s; and Haydn’s dramatic Symphony No. 39, one of the few pieces the composer known for his sunny disposition wrote in a minor key. Lecce-Chong will lead the Haydn symphony from the fortepiano.

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