Musical Chats with David Owen Norris

During my time as Concert Promotions and Marketing intern at Turner Sims (if you’re in the Southampton area, make sure to check out their concert series!) I got to interview a lot of great artists. You can check out my interviews and reviews on the Turner Sims blog, as well as here on The Rosie Word. 

I will be uploading interviews in a series called “Musical Chats with…”, so stay tuned for more interviews with great artists! 

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David Owen Norris is a world-renowned pianist, educator, Professor and broadcaster. I had the pleasure of interviewing David before he delved into Mozart’s Jupiter symphony with orchestra SÓN at Turner Sims on Saturday 14 March 2020. This concert included Jupiter, and Debussy’s Clair de lune arranged for piano and orchestra.

Rosie Sewell (RS): How would you describe Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to an audience member who has never heard it before?
David Owen Norris (DON): A sparkling diamond of a symphony that thoroughly deserves its nickname. Jupiter was King of the Gods, and nothing is more commandingly brilliant than this, Mozart’s last symphony. The themes perform that difficult trick of being both catchy and distinct, each with its own character, and rich in possibilities, as Mozart shows as he develops his ideas through each of the four movements. Unusually luxuriant harmonies, even for Mozart, and a dazzling tour de force of counterpoint in the Finale, where a whole world is conjured up from just the four notes we hear at the beginning. One of the great summits of music, up there with Beethoven’s Fifth and The Rite of Spring – and Clair de lune!

RS: Mozart and Debussy were alive and composing just over 100 years apart from each other, and were living in very different Europes to each other. Do you find that these composers’ works particularly complement each other? Or are they really quite distinct from each other?
DON: What Mozart and Debussy have in common is an exquisitely sensitive aural imagination – a fine ear, you could say. Putting just one note into a different octave, for instance, would completely change the effect. One of my favourite moments in Clair de lune is where the opening tune comes back at the end. It’s almost the same, but Debussy adds just one new note, a C flat, and the effect is heart-breaking. Or listen to how Mozart uses his single flute, like a painter touching in a dab of white to bring light into his picture.

RS: You are the Professor of Classical Performance at the University of Southampton, and are working on this project with SÓN, who place an emphasis on education and outreach. You also often make presentations alongside performances. Is music education and outreach a key point of interest for you when you undertake projects?
DON: Music is more than a warm aural bath for us to wallow in. Great music makes its emotional effects by intellectual means, and the better we understand its intellectual aspect, the more emotionally satisfying the music becomes. So, Bach can sound like a sewing-machine, or like a wonderful tapestry of interlocking threads of different colours. Beethoven can sound like an old, over-familiar, library book, or like one of art’s greatest revolutionaries. The difference lies in the intellectual comprehension of both performer and listener. Education and Outreach are tick-box words, but the activities that they imperfectly describe – Listening closely, Explaining simply, Knowing that everyone can enjoy music – are very important ones.

RS: On a similar theme, do you find that working alongside young musicians and students has influenced and impacted you as a performer?
DON: It’s good to see the effect that a by-now familiar piece of music has, upon someone who’s hearing it or playing it for the first time. And very satisfying to observe processes of discovery. Above all, it’s stimulating to hear the new interpretations of a generation with different formative experiences, different memories, and different emotional expectations. And a lesson on a piece, for both teacher and student, is a wonderful way of exploring it outside real time, as you try things in different ways.

RS: And finally, if you could host a dinner party and invite three composers, who would they be?
DON: Haydn, Poulenc and Constant Lambert. People who couldn’t be dull if they tried.

RS: Thank you very much for your time, David!

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