Interview: James Conlon & Lisa Sutton Discuss Pittance Chamber Music’s Program of Mozart and Mendelssohn at Zipper Hall

Pittance Chamber Music Takes the Stage

Pittance Chamber Music presents its second concert of the 2016/17 season at 8pm this Friday, February 3rd, at Zipper Hall.  The program will feature Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B flat (often referred to as the “Gran Partita” after an anonymous marking on the original manuscript) and Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E Flat.  Pittance was founded in 2013 and is directed by LA Opera Assistant Concertmaster Lisa Sutton,  and the ensemble will be joined by LA Opera Conductor James Conlon.  LA Beat discussed the upcoming evening with Ms. Sutton and Maestro Conlon and is pleased to be able to share some of their remarks.

LA Beat: Pittance’s performance of Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major comes during LA Opera’s production of The Abduction from the Seraglio. The pieces are thought to have been written within a year or so of each other (Serenade is believed to have been written in 1871 or 1872 and Abduction is known to have premiered in July, 1872).  Working with the two scores in the same period of time, do you find interesting commonalities and differences between the pieces?  What do the pieces, together and separately, tell you about Mozart?

Sutton: I would venture to say that there are commonalities in the woodwind writing. One interesting note is the use of the basset horn in each work.  The basset horn is similar to the clarinet, but a bit longer and with extra keys that make it possible to play several additional notes on the low end.   

Conlon: It is striking how much music featuring solo woodwinds or “serenade” like writing that is to be found in The Abduction from the Seraglio.  Belmonte’s Third Act aria “Ich baue ganz” prominently features an ensembles of two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns. The first of Konstanze’s Act Two arias ( Traurigkeit)  includes Basset Horns which are an integral element of the Gran Partita.  Mozart would not use them again in an opera until The Magic Flute.  Her second aria, “Martern Aller Arten” is unique in his entire operatic output. Presenting a mini “Sinfonia Concertante” with four instruments, two of them woodwind, has no parallel in his operas.  All to say that the instrumentality of Abduction reflects the ongoing development of the serenades ( of which is the Gran Partita is one), piano concerti and symphonies. As so little is known about the history of the Gran Partita, it is impossible to say what particular relationship it has to anything written around the time.

LA Beat: Mendelssohn wrote the Octet for Strings in E-Flat Minor when he was 16.  What were you doing when you were 16?

Conlon: Certainly, nothing that deserves to mentioned in the same breath as Mendelssohn.  The Octet in E-Flat Major is one of the great pieces of chamber music.  It would be just as beautiful if its composer had been 76 when it was written.  That said, it is astounding that Mendelssohn’s prodigious genius, similar to Mozart’s was capable of producing such a work.  The vast majority of musicians, let alone humanity, cannot boast anything similar at sixteen.  At 16, I was studying in New York at the High School of Music and Art.  I was practicing the piano when not doing my homework, which I did riding the subway back and forth to school (around 2 hours a day).  I frequented the New York City libraries, Carnegie Hall, the relatively new Philharmonic Hall and the Metropolitan Operas, both the last season of the old Met as well as the new, and the City Opera at Lincoln Center, where I first saw Placido Domingo.  Music had already taken over my life and it has remained that way.

Sutton:  Apart from attending high school, I was immersed in music–it was about the only thing I was really interested in.  Piano and violin practicing, lessons, chamber music and youth orchestra took up most of my time, except for some school sports.

LA Beat: The LA Opera Orchestra is a much larger body than Pittance, whose repertoire revolves around vocalists and, usually, dramatic presentations. In what ways do you vary your musical approach according to each setting, and in what ways are they the same?

Conlon:  The approach has more similarities than differences.  Essentially, music making has very little to do with the genre one is performing in the sense that it involves communicating a composition through musician colleagues to an audience.  That never changes.  Each genre has its particular demands and challenges, and they are driven by the construction and character of the composition.

Amongst the most interesting aspects of conducting Mozart is the interrelation of all the genres.  At this point I calculate over 175 performances of his operas and hundreds of performances of symphonies, sacred music, piano concertos (I have led three complete cycles).  Each genre relates to the other and complementary.  Knowing the operas lends insight into the instrumental music and vice versa.

LA Opera Orchestra is an outstanding ensemble of musicians.  We have grown together now over ten years, and the work with them continues to give me great joy and satisfaction.  Working on occasions such as this with Pittance is an opportunity to collaborate more closely with the individual musicians in a smaller setting.  Any day in which I conduct Mozart is precious to me.

Sutton: At the opera, the musicians are in the pit, relatively hidden; a vital part of the production, but not the main attraction.  At Pittance concerts these musicians are featured on stage, performing in a variety of instrumental ensembles, often with singers. Musicians playing in the pit are accustomed to accompanying singers-a skill that requires great flexibility and sensitivity in terms of timing and volume.  The major difference between playing in the opera orchestra and performing in a chamber music ensemble is that in chamber music there isn’t usually a conductor, so artistic decisions such as the tempo and the expression of the music are determined more democratically by the players.  Our next Pittance concert is an exception to that rule-a conductor is necessary due to the size and scope of the Gran Partita, which is written for thirteen players and is almost an hour long.  It is possible to do the piece without a conductor, but it would require a tremendous number of rehearsals.  You can imagine the democratic process with thirteen different opinions!

I would like to say how honored and grateful we are that Maestro Conlon is moving from the pit to the stage with us on this occasion.  It will surely be a compelling performance, full of heart and infused with energy–trademarks of Conlon’s approach.  I know it will be a special evening for everyone.

Pittance Chamber Music performs at 8pm Friday, February 3, 2017 at Zipper Hall, The Colburn School, 200 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets are $35 general admission; $20 seniors and $10 students.  For more information, visit Pittance at

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