Surprising things injected into Mozart cadenzas

This review of a Seattle Symphony concert from 2007 mentioned that back in 1998, soloist Jon Kimura Parker inserted the theme from The X-Files into one of his cadenzas. Cadenzas were originally points in a concerto at which soloists could improvise and show off their technical skills, but over the years, the contents of cadenzas have become more and more rehearsed, with most composers having switched over to fully-written-out cadenzas over a hundred years ago.

That's why it's so exciting when an improvised cadenza reappears on the scene. All of a sudden, anything can happen. Reading the article reminded me of a cadenza surprise in a performance by Awadagin Pratt nearly twenty years ago. I'm fairly certain the piece was a Mozart piano concerto, and during the cadenza, Pratt slipped into a middle voice the theme from the opening movement of the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony, which was the next piece on the program! By the time I figured out what was happening, it was over. My opportunity to burst into applause in the middle of a piece was lost.

Comments (18)
  1. Gareth says:

    Did anyone notice?

  2. Nathan_works says:

    Would bursting into applause have been an appropriate/correct/socially acceptable response ? (ie I can’t tell if it would have meant you were in on the joke, or if the theatre goers would have shushed you or __ ?)_

    [My opportunity to do so while being able to justify it to myself. -Raymond]
  3. Albert A says:

    Given how much classical music is scripted these days, it’s fun when the performers manage to slip in appropriate improvisations.

    A few years back, the San Francisco Opera had a run of in-jokes. The "Tristan and Isolde" story is referenced in two or three operas that came before Wagner’s opera. The orchestra would regularly slip in the first four note’s of Wagner’s overture while the characters on stage were relating the old myth. It always gets a laugh out of about a third of the audience.

  4. Gr8Scott says:

    I don’t know about a classical concert, but if a Jazz Band is playing it is perfectly acceptable to applaud after a solo (improvised or not).  A cadenza is basically a short improvised solo in a classical piece.

  5. mike says:

    Written-out cadenzas were inspired also by the need to help performers who were not very good improvisers or to rein in those who used the opportunity to showboat excessively.

    Fun fact: many of the "standard" cadenzas used in Mozart piano concertos were written by Beethoven.

  6. Alistair says:

    I once went to the Proms (a big concert series in London), and the program for the first half was Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which starts with a very distinctive and majestic piano segment (beginning with an A minor chord including a pretty high A).

    The second half was a Shostakovich piece called ‘Hypothetically Murdered’, which is, essentially, a comedy piece. One of the instruments was this comedically detuned bar piano, and at one point the pianist got a cadenza.

    He was playing the cadenza, joking around on the keys, and suddenly he built up to this rather distinctive A minor chord. Which was followed, of course, by the rest of the opening of the Grieg concerto.

    I got the joke about three seconds before everyone else, and so there was I laughing at the Proms…

  7. Warll says:

    Bah, call me when someone does the Evangelion theme.

  8. Henrik Ravn says:

    Jon Kimura Parker has recorded with Peter Schickele (of PDQ Bach fame)

    .. so he has certainly displayed a tendency to wander off the beaten path before.

  9. Josh Smeaton says:

    “and during the cadenda, Pratt slipped into a middle voice”

    Cadenza? Do I receive $2.65?

    [You get something far more valuable: A thank-you. Fixed. Thanks. -Raymond]
  10. Worf says:

    Or heck, someone’s gotta slip in the Halo (Master Chief) theme in there.

    Though, a few classical performances are doing just that – in order to show that classical isn’t boring, and you can transition from a 21st century theme to a 19th century one and have people blown away.

    Take the big themes (Halo, Final Fantasy, etc), and mix in the "proper" classical, and you can come up with amazing performances.

  11. Dave Harris says:

    During a long Pink Floyd instrumental, they sometimes slip in the Dr Who theme. It works perfectly.

  12. Sir Digby Chicken Ceasar says:

    When Bloodbath played Wacken Open Air in 2008 they played the guitar solo from Entombed’s ‘Left Hand Path’ during ‘Furnace Funeral’, instead of the original solo.

    That’s the same sort of thing, right?

  13. GWO says:

    Art Tatum would do this all the time: half way through an improvisation on the theme "Tea For Two" he’d play the vocal melody to "Honeysuckle Rose", or "I Got Rhythm"… He was also another proponent of the carefully rehearsed and planned "improvisation".

  14. Pete says:

    Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor is also the subject of one of Morcombe and Wise’s greatest comedy sketches, with their guest Andre Previn.

  15. kats says:

    @Josh Smeaton: don’t you mean $2.56?

    I wonder if Skitt’s Law applies to this comment.

    Also, for some reason trying to a post a comment on this blog in Opera doesn’t work (tells me the code was invalid).

  16. Spike says:

    @Pete "Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor is also the subject of one of Morcombe and Wise’s greatest comedy sketches, with their guest Andre Previn."

    All the right notes.  But not necessarily in the right order!

  17. Someone You Know says:


    "Take the big themes (Halo, Final Fantasy, etc), and mix in the "proper" classical, and you can come up with amazing performances."

  18. Worf says:

    @Someone You Know: I know about VGL, except they only do game themes.

    There was a concert held here where they mixed the classics with the modern – the goal was to show how classical music today is not only relevant, but you could skillfully start with say the Star Wars march, and end up in a piece written centuries ago. And it would sound cohesive. Those who didn’t know (e.g., the younger set) would think it was a heck of a performance or original music.

    And I wish I had the time to attend VGL…

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