Magic Flutes

Around 330 B.C., Aristotle wrote in his Politics: "The flute is not an instrument that has a good moral effect: It is too exciting." Better remembered but more widely disputed are Mozart's sentiments about the ancient instrument. In a letter to his father on February 14, 1778, he said he "could not abide" the flute.

Indeed, in compendiums of his works, the composer's flute compositions barely get a mention, despite consisting of four flute quartets, two flute concerti, a flute and harp concerto, an Andante for flute and orchestra, and numerous solos. Historians disagree about whether or not Mozart actually wrote each of the popular quartets. But the world's best flute players beg to differ with the notion that Mozart wasn't inspired by the flute. According to Dutch flutist and Schoenbrunn Ensemble co-founder Marten Root, " ... Mozart's flute compositions hold the foremost place among all classical flute compositions and are therefore sacred."

Root's appreciation for the composer runs so deep he prefers to play his music on the antique flute of Mozart's day instead of the silver version, developed in the 1840s to stand out among the more powerful brasses in an orchestra. Root and fellow Schoenbrunn string players Johannes Leertouwer, Susanne van Els and Viola de Hoog will introduce Houston to their unusual mix of flute with violin, viola and cello during a series of concerts sponsored by Da Camera of Houston. The Dutch musicians will impart some of their expertise in playing music on period instruments -- notably the classical flute and baroque cello -- in rarely seen performances of Mozart's complete flute quartets, on November 13-14 and 17.

There are flutes and there are flutes. Seventeenth-century references to the instrument correspond to what is nowadays the 'recorder' or English flute, a woodwind held vertically and blown into through a mouthpiece. The 'transverse flute' of Mozart's day was called such to distinguish it from the recorder. Played sideways, the conical-shaped instrument was wooden, had fewer keys than its modern equivalent and was narrower at the end.

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Speaking from his home in Amsterdam, Root explained that for smaller, intimate performances, the Schoenbrunn Ensemble likes the old-fashioned variety for the very same characteristics others deemed as inferior more than a century ago. "It gives notes that are both open and bright, as well as subdued. Its variety of colors and dynamics are greater than those of the modern flute. The classical flute is softer and has different shades -- very bright on one end and very veiled on the other. It was made for standing alone, not as part of an orchestra."

In describing the difference in sound, Root asks listeners to imagine the stylistic contrast between two Dutch painters: the enormous range of shading, shadows, light and color in Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" versus the single form of the abstractionist Piet Mondrian, who used nothing but bright primary colors in "Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow." "I think if you play a modern instrument, the idea is to make every sound as bright and direct as possible."

To the amateur, playing music on vintage instruments might smack of the gimmickry necessary to lure fans back to an outmoded art form. Root explains that all too often the amateur thinks every nuance of a musical piece is written on the page. Professionals often delve into a composer's manuscripts to better understand his intentions. "In order to understand music of the late 18th century, it helps if you try playing it on instruments of the time. Certain indications (readings) of the music [don't come through] on modern instruments. When you try it on the old [flute], the pieces of the puzzle come together ... and [you achieve] a respect for the composer and the composition."

But why the unlikely combination of flute and strings? Root says, "You need to find people you love working with. The basis of our playing together is that we're all interested in playing music of the time and we have a keen interest in trying to do things differently." The Schoenbrunn has managed to stay intact since 1983, possibly because they didn't come together out of an arbitrary desire to assemble a specific collection of instruments.

Besides its performance of Mozart's Quartet in G Major, Quartet in C Major, Quartet in A Major and Quartet in D Major, the Schoenbrunn Ensemble will tackle the Trio in c minor for Violin, Viola and Cello, op. 14, no. 2, by 18th-century Italian cellist Luigi Boccherini, and Mozart's own transcription of J.S. and W.F. Bach's keyboard and organ music for violin, viola and cello -- Largo and Fugue in E-flat Major.

Root's program notes quote another letter from Mozart to his father: "... I wish you may live as many years as one would need to leave nothing new in music to be experienced ...." Pursuing a unique instrumental mix, this ensemble seems to be taking a cue from Mozart himself, legendary for aspiring to leave no stone unturned in his composition of new musical forms.

Schoenbrunn Ensemble plays November 13 at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston; November 14 at Houston Zoological Gardens; and November 17 at The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross. For more information, call the Da Camera Music Center, 524-5050.

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