How Mozart’s wrong concerto became a rabbi’s New Year sermon

You remember the incident in Amsterdam a few years ago when Maria Joao Pires found herself facing a different Mozart concerto at a lunchtime performance from the one she expected. The conductor Riccardo Chailly managed to talk her through the switchover. Here’s how:

The episode came to the attention of our friend Rabbi Johnny Solomon, an educator in Israel, and he made it the basis for his Rosh Hashana meditation on the meaning of self-improvement and our connection with the conductor of all things.

Here’s Johnny’s text, reproduced with his permission, ahead of the Jewish New Year festival:

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TESHUVA AS A SPIRITUAL CONCERTO

It was meant to be a routine lunchtime performance.

The Portuguese concert pianist Maria João Pires was set to play Mozart’s Concerto No. 467 alongside the Amsterdam symphony orchestra which was to be conducted by Riccardo Chailly. However, once the Orchestra played its first string of notes Maria realised – to her absolute shock – that the orchestra was playing a different piece – the D minor Concerto – as opposed to the one she had expected to play and had practiced.

Paralysed with fear, Pires’s head was spinning as the orchestra continued to play while the audience had no idea what was taking place. She wasn’t sure what to do, but as the orchestra proceeded, and as the moment when she would need to begin playing drew nearer, Pires needed to come up with a plan. Pires called out to Chailly, who at that point was waving his hands while conducting the orchestra, and she told him that there was a problem – she hadn’t expected or prepared that piece, and she didn’t have the notes of this piece with her.

Perhaps she thought Chailly would slowly wind down the orchestra and apologise to the audience. But this is not what he did because Chailly isn’t just a regular conductor, and he knew that Maria wasn’t just a regular pianist. Chailly knew that Maria was very familiar with the concerto he was playing, and that she’d played it during the previous season. So rather than considering how to end the concert, Chailly encouraged Maria by telling her: ‘I’m sure you’ll do well’. To this she replied, ‘I’m going to try’ – and this is what she did.

Though initially nervous, Pires began to play, and over time she eased into the music that came from a place deep within her consciousness. True, she didn’t have notes in front of her, and true she was unprepared. But because she also knew this piece, she had the notes inside of her.

I love this story and every Ellul I watch the short clip on youtube. And why? It is because each time Ellul comes around, I genuinely feel like Maria João Pires – utterly unprepared for Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur as if I’ve been practicing the notes for a concert I’ve come to realise is playing a different tune. Like her, when I hear the call of the Shofar of Ellul and Rosh Hashana, I feel paralysed and I am in shock, because I suddenly understand that what I’ve been doing isn’t aligned with what I’m expected to have done, and what I’ve achieved isn’t what I’m expected to have achieved.

However, just like Pires, something incredible and majestic occurs in those moments of shock. Rather than giving up, I sense that I am being encouraged by Hashem – the ultimate conductor of the world – and so each Ellul I say to myself ‘I’m going to try’, and, from a place deep within me, I somehow know to find the right notes, and I begin to play my life according to the expectations and in accordance with the notes of the ultimate conductor. It is this process that I would like to explore tonight – the process of hearing our inner music and living our lives in accordance with the song of our soul.

The Gemara (Niddah 30b), quoting Rabbi Simlai, informs us that something quite extraordinary occurs to each of us while in our mother’s womb – namely that we are taught Torah to the extent that we achieve spiritual clarity that penetrates the mysteries of the entire universe. Then, an angel causes us to forget all that we have learnt….

Read on here.

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  • Faye says:

    Would a concert pianist really not have a single rehearsal or run-through with the orchestra before a performance? I always found that hard to believe about this incident…… can anyone shed any light on this? I remember when it first happened some people suspecting it might be fake or a publicity stunt for that very reason?

    • Nick2 says:

      It’s a rehearsal in front of an audience – it’s not the performance. Why else would Chailly have a towel around his neck?

    • DR. GRIMWOOD says:

      Hi Faye, Professional cellist here. Yes, this does happen on occasion, believe it of not. Back in the mid 80’s at the start of my career my orchestra played a big gala concert and had booked two major soloists who flew in the day of the concert, the sum total of rehearsal for the soloists was, diva 1. arrived, tested the hall and then discussed her tempos with the conductor, done. Diva 2 sang about 5-10 measures of her selections and that was that. At the concert Diva 1 was a tad jealous that Diva 2 received a huge ovation before her next selection and demanded to change her next offering to a totally different aria which the orchestra had not played leaving the librarian to find the parts while we were playing the orchestral piece between the arias and distribute parts just before diva 1. returned to the stage. Fun times.

    • Bruce says:

      Faye —

      The story as I recall when this first came to light was, they were preparing a couple of different Mozart concerti for a tour (and recording??), so it was apparently a simple mix-up as to which piece was happening on which day.

      The Rabbi exaggerates the story (I think) a little in order to make his very valid point — you put in a huge amount of time and effort getting ready for something, only to realize that there’s something unexpected you didn’t prepare for, only to realize that you can only try your best, and with God’s help everything will come out all right. On some scale or another, we all do this kind of thing all the time. Usually it’s not caught on video in front of hundreds of people, though 😛

    • FrauGeigerin says:

      Oh, yes indeed. It does happen. Sometimes top soloists (those who give +90) concerts/recitals or more per year arrive just for the general rehearsal, and often the general rehearsal is a performance open to school students or long-term season subscribers etc. This can really happen. It has happened more twice in my orchestra in the last 25 years (that has told me someone who has been playing in it longer than I have), and just check online and you will find similar situations with other soloists who arrived to a rehearsal and found out they are playing Rachmaninov 2nd piano concerto instead of the 3rd.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    That few years ago, is not so recent, except for those of us who are of older generation (myself included). A whole generation of people have emerged since this video was made.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Indeed, the film is from 1999, according to Wikipedia. This makes sense, judging from the looks of Chailly and Pires.
      What is relatively recent, however, is its publicity. The youtube clip became viral in 2014.

  • How inspired and inspiring. Thank you and Happy New Year.

  • Edo says:

    The happy Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra LOL but nice read!

  • Mark Hildrew says:

    Yes, this is a famous clip, but what was the background ? Why was the audience there – was it an open rehearsal ?

  • Esther Cavett says:

    If you keep reading, there’s an interesting Toscanini story about identifying one missing violinist over a radio broadcast – although it’s not told terribly well.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    So it’s OK for this clip to be on You Tube but not in your other story re. the soloist “yelling” at someone filming her?

    Sounds like one of those dreadful BBC religious programmes where the speaker tells a story and then says and what would Jesus have done? No matter how tenuous the link.

  • Moein says:

    Such an interesting connection between Mozart, Maria and the Torah . O Mozart! immortal Mozart! what countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls ! (Franz Schubert 1797 – 1828)

  • sam says:

    I always thought the video was a tad suspect:
    – how Chailly blithely ignored her, smiling right through her worrying
    – how Pires kept sitting there worrying as though, well, if she truly couldn’t play the piece, what’s the point of sitting there worrying, it’s just a rehearsal, get up and get the score,
    – then miraculously she executes flawlessly and that’s the end of it

    I don’t think it was fake, I think there was a real, but minor, mixup (it’s not like the orchestra started on Bartok), and I think both conductor and pianist knew perfectly well that Pires was preparing for a couple of concerti and knew both cold even if she was expecting to play the other one…

    • Monsoon says:

      The D minor piano concerto is one of the most popular Mozart piano concertos, if not the most popular — I imagine that Pires has played it many times and knows it inside out. It wasn’t like this was Barber’s piano concerto that Pires probably plays once a decade.

      And if she had to improvise in places, the average listener wouldn’t notice.

  • john Borstlap says:

    Beautiful story with the pianist, and yes, it must have been an open rehearsel. The idea that such performance takes place without first rehearsing the piece without an audience beforehand though, is unprofessional. When rehearsing has become expensive, managements try to cut corners – the business side of performance culture.

    ‘In seeking to understand this process, Rav Soloveitchik explains that every Jew has a profound yet latent understanding of God and Torah which lie – as R’ Soloveitchik puts it – ‘in the deep recesses of [their] soul waiting to be awakened by study and a favourable environment’ (Reflections of the Rav p. 61), and just as we have a mental memory that is triggered by certain words and experiences, we also have a spiritual memory that is stirred when our soul is stirred, and in that magical moment, ‘man finds himself, and… finds redemption’ (Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah).’

    Such things are not restricted to Jews. Also, in case there exists a god, it’s not an exclusively Jewish thing, in spite of the idea of ‘only one god’ in Judaism (which was already prefigured by pharao Akhnaton.

    ‘….. the individual can attain virtue only from within themselves, from their essential, inner self, and not from without… indeed, upon examination, we find that one attains through Torah and mitzvot only what is already latent in one’s soul’.

    Such suggestions easily give opportunity to mental blindness for any evidence that may come from outside reality. Religion without rationality is like performing music without the score. Only well-trained professionals are capable of it, like Mrs Pires.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Didn’t they meet up soloist and conductor first to rehearse 467 and did the contract state 467 which the soloist would have had? Maybe I am missing something.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==Such things are not restricted to Jews.

    Yes, that’s right. Let’s not get carried away with the rhetoric

  • Jan de Jong says:

    There is nothing fake about this video, but it quite accidently that cameras were present at this very moment. The video is taken from a 1999 documentary about Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra made for Dutch Public Broadcasting. The crew followed Chailly at several occasions. This was a free Wednesday mid-day concerto (during season every Wednesday at 12.30) at the Concertgebouw. Some of these “concerts” are in the form of a rehearsal by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in preparation for its concerts the following days.
    Mrs. Pires expected the E flat major concerto that she had played the year before, also with Chailly, who reminded that to her. No concert tour with different concertos was planned, as suggested by Sam. The same d minor concerto was programmed in Las Palmas, Madrid, Bergen and Vienna.
    Most of the audience in Amsterdam, including myself, did notice the talking and gestures of Mr. Chailly and Mrs. Pires, but we did not know what was happening. The concerto sounded fine and I only found out what happened when I saw the documentary.

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