Kent McDonald was my first organ teacher. He accepted me as a student a bit reluctantly. I was a hairy bar musician playing part-time at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oscoda. Helen Swetka was an elderly lady there who pointed out consistently and vigorously that I needed more training and should study with someone like him. This was charitable of her. In my serving as the organist/choir director of this tiny northern Michigan church I avoided the pedals entirely. Mrs. Swetka was not the only one who noticed my lack of skills but for the most part the community seemed glad to get someone compent enough to do the gig.
Finally I approached Kent McDonald. He was a church organist who served in a fancy Detroit suburb and had a cottage in Oscoda. He agreed but insisted that I come to his church in Birmingham for lessons and that I not bother him in Oscoda. This I did.
We had a bit of stormy relationship. Kent was a erudite organist with a degree from Eastman. He taught at Oakland University. He abhorred all music but “classical” music. He once told me that the worst night of his life was spent substituting as the pianist for a dance band. I was an arrogant ignorant young man far too certain of my own potential and abilities.
I bring up Kent because I remember him saying that sometimes he would lock himself in the choir room at St. James in Birmingham where he worked and play through the entire piano sonatas of Mozart.
At the peak of my abilities it took me longer than a day to play through the Mozart piano sonatas. Yesterday I played carefully through the first five.
Mozart is a huge musical presence in my life. I connect with him differently than Bach. Bach is always there to satisfy my need for a certain king of beauty and meaning. I would call it a need for the genius of multiply textured treatment profound melodies combined with a Jazz like insistence of spinning out of rhythms and motives.
Mozart takes me to a different place, a place of holy playfulness and deep love of life.
It’s difficult to describe these connections of course. But they are clear inside me.
I have neglected the piano sonatas of Mozart in the last few years because I found them less satisfying than his violin sonatas and trio sonatas. In some ways this is a bit of a false distinction on my part possibly brought on by a bit of my own mimicking of academic snobbery.
When I returned the piano sonatas yesterday I realized how much they offer the performer/listener.
I am reminded of a quote from the late Christopher Small: “However trivial and banal the [musical] work may be that is the basis of the performance, meaning and beauty are created whenever any performer approaches it with love and with all the skill and care that he or she can bring to it.” (from Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening.
Mozart of course is far from trivial and banal.
In the last few years I have noticed that the more care and love I use when playing, the better I connect with the music. This experience is not one of consciously summoning these but instead I experience a reaction to the music as I am playing that seems to draw me involuntarily more deeply into the music I am making. It feels more like something is happening to me than something I am bringing about. Consequently I find the experience one of being in the presence of beauty and even in the presence of a deep and resonant something speaking directly to and through me.