Yaniv Dinur and the Two Faces of Mozart

Paul Kosidowski

Tagged Under: 2019.20 Season, Conductor, MSO Notable, piano

Yaniv Dinur has definite ideas about the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Sitting in a nearly empty practice room at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, he explains with a story.

When he still lived in Israel—before moving to the United States and assuming his post as resident conductor of the MSO—he studied piano with a Russian couple, husband and wife. Working on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, they gave him interpretive advice about the gentle theme that opens the second movement:

“The husband tells me,” Dinur says after playing the passage, “‘you have to feeell thisit’s like mother swinging baby.” He imitates his teachers’ impassioned Russian accents and mimes rocking a baby in his arms. “But the wife,” Dinur continues, “she tells me: ‘No, is not mother. Is death….Death is swinging baby.’”

“I was like—‘Oh, my God.’ But it explained a lot about the complexities and different layers of Mozart’s music. It’s like the two masks, tragic and comic. He can cry very honestly in one moment, and in the next moment be completely joyful”

Those two masks are on Dinur’s mind as he prepares for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s concert, Nov. 22-24, at the Marcus Center, in which he will conduct Mozart’s Requiem and play and conduct the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor.

The program required a little bargaining. When Bret Dorhout, the MSO’s vice president of artistic planning & operations, asked him a year ago if he was interested in conducting Mozart’s Requiem, Dinur asked if he could pair it with “one of my favorite Mozart concertos,” with Dinur as conductor and soloist.

“That was always my dream, since I was a kid,” he says. “To play and conduct,” just like Mozart did himself.

“Separating those two roles is really an artificial thing to do,” he explains. “That’s what we do today because we are ‘experts’—we either play…or conduct…or compose. But back then, everybody did all of that.”

Playing both roles also gives him a sense of satisfaction that isn’t quite there when he is conducting. “I love conducting,” he says, “but when I’m done there’s a tiny sense of frustration. It’s not totally ‘complete’ because I didn’t play. I didn’t have a physical connection to the sound.”

There are challenges, of course. “When you play, you can’t really conduct in the traditional way,” Dinur says. “You give a look. You do something with your eyes, or gesture with your head. You point out things during rehearsal, and they carry through to the performance.”

But, he says, “the benefits are greater than the challenges.”

The “dream-come-true” of the concerto aside, Dinur sees other reasons for performing this concerto and the Requiem on the same program. More than six years separate the two pieces, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t connections.

“It’s not really about the years,” Dinur says. “All of Mozart’s music was in his head at once, and he made references to different pieces throughout his life, whether consciously or not.”

Both pieces are in the key of D minor, for instance, as is Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. “With Mozart, it’s never a coincidence,” he explains. “D minor is very dramatic, very tragic. Of all the 27 piano concertos, only two are in minor keys. Those two are my favorites. Maybe because I’m Jewish and I like to suffer.”

And there are specific connections as well. “For me, the Requiem’s ‘Dies irae’ is completely Don Giovanni,” he says. “I hear it and I hear Don Giovanni in my head.”

That’s not surprising. “People have said that everything Mozart wrote was actually an opera,” Dinur says. “his piano concertos, symphonies, everything. It’s also true of the Requiem.” With that in mind, Dinur is preparing it as a dramatic work, with careful consideration of the pauses between the sections. “In opera, you don’t take breaks between certain scenes. You have to do the same here.”

He speaks about the concerto in operatic terms as well. The concerto’s third movement begins with a solo piano melody that contains an octave jump.

“Usually when you hear it,” he explains as he plays it with a steady beat, “it just goes—in tempo. But I think it needs some time. A singer will never make an octave jump quickly. There has to be some….” He plays it, holding the high note with a little dramatic pause. “But if you do too much”—he demonstrates again, holding the note a little longer—“you lose the whole structure of the melody line.”

“That’s the challenge of Mozart,” he says. “To pay attention to all these details, capture all these expressions, but not to hurt the music.”

And for Dinur, there’s no better opportunity than this weekend’s concerts. “It’s a dream come true to play these pieces with this orchestra. It’s like making music with family.”