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29 July 2005

Hang on to Surface of Earth! 5 months till Mozart's 250th Birthday!!!

If you have gotten the impression from many of the most recent posts that everything humans do on Earth really sucks, that happens not always to be the case.

Right now on Earth -- New York City, to be exact -- the Mostly Mozart Festival is on at Lincoln Center through Saturday 27 August.

Everything Mozart wrote didn't suck. (Hmmm ... did I say that right? How about: NOTHING Mozart wrote sucked.) And they're playing a whole bunch of his stuff at the Mostly Mozart.

But if we can all just hang on to the surface of the Earth until 2006, that will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 250th Birthday, and no matter what else discordant, ugly, miserable, small, talentless, toxic and mean-spirited is going on, this planet will shimmer and shake for that entire year with every piece of music Mozart ever wrote.

Earth will be -- or at least Earth will sound -- beautiful for an entire year. Take my word for it.

Jeez -- I may not even bother to hop the Zeta Beam and visit my beloved Vleeptron for that entire year! I just might spend all of 2006 on Planet Earth!

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The New York Sun
Tuesday 26 July 2005

Classical Music
Too Much of a Good Thing


The Austrian region of Styria, which includes the city of Graz, has declared itself a "Mozart Free Zone" for the entire calendar year of 2006. Individual Styrians will still be able to listen to the works of Wolfgang in their own homes, but all public performances of this repertoire are strictly verboten. This drastic measure is a response to the anticipated orgy of events throughout the rest of the country as part of the 250th birthday celebration of the boy genius.

Already the Salzburg Festival has announced that its schedule next year will consist of presentations of all 22 Mozart operas, with the desire for encyclopedic comprehensiveness overshadowing any considerations of quality. The initial response to the festival's announcement has been extremely negative - I, for one, would not wish to spend my holiday listening to revivals of "Apollo et Hyacinthus," "L'oca del Cairo," and "Mitridate, Re di Ponto."

But there may be more to the Salzburgers' decision than meets the ear. Mozart is their own private property, featured as a tourist attraction in every incarnation from street names to candies, and this type of concentrated effort may translate less into musical scholarship and more into savvy civic self-promotion. Here I am already talking about the season an entire year in advance.

New York has its own summer festival devoted to Mozart, and this year promises to be an interesting one. Last season the big story was the marked improvement of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under new music director Louis Langree. Currently the emphasis is on programming, the entire proceedings christened "Arrivals and Departures: Traveling With Mozart." The premise emerges from Mozart's unsettled lifestyle. He did indeed travel quite a bit as a young performer - describing his life as that of a trained monkey - and cross-pollinated influences in many corners of musical Europe.

For me, the most promising concerts on this year's bill are those that re-create musical evenings that the wunderkind might have encountered during his peregrinations to France and Italy. The scholarly facade begins to ravel rather quickly when the planners include Russia - a nation never visited by Mozart - but that particular evening features Joshua Bell performing the Tchaikovsky concerto, so who really cares about historical accuracy?

But why is Mozart considered a festival commodity, treated annually like some eagerly awaited wine or cheese? Perhaps the most relevant reason is that so little of his music is programmed during the regular season. A sea change in Mozart performance over the past 60 years has unintentionally marginalized his great symphonic output.

Back in the day of Josef Krips or Toscanini, Mozart was approached in a full-bodied manner, as 80-piece or chestras intoned his granitic phrases with a sense of timeless import. But over the years Mozart has been downsized drastically, and not just in the rarefied gardens of the period-instrument movement.

Today it is not uncommon for a modern orchestra to stand at only 30 to 35 members for an evening of late 18th century music. Only when Beethoven arrives does everyone work again. As a result all-Mozart concerts during the main season are increasingly rare. The demise of the overture-concerto-symphony model of standard programming of the first half of the 20th century also nudged the shorter symphony off the stage.

Harder to quantify but just as real is a sense in modern society that we the people somehow "own" Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that he is in the public domain. No composer has been so tinkered around with in music history. Wolfie himself started the tradition by improvising many of his own instrumental parts, caring little for subtleties of tessitura or human limits of intervallic locomotion -- no composer before Webern is so demanding on individual singers as Mozart -- and legend has it he scribbled parts in the orchestra pit during the first performance of "Die Zauberflote."

The 19th century marched to an advancing parade of Mozart bastardization. Both Rossini and Berlioz borrowed "soave sia il vento" for their own most splendid moments, and conductors like Mahler shuffled arias from one opera to another on a regular basis. The Metropolitan Opera has already announced that one of its contributions to the anniversary proceedings at the end of 2006 will be a shortened, English version of "The Magic Flute" - from two and a half hours to 90 minutes. Wolfgang is our boy and we can do what we want with him, including relegate his works to the languid world of the white jacket and high humidity.

Finally, there are aesthetic and stylistic reasons for the dearth of Mozart works during a normal winter season. Artur Rubinstein's comment that Mozart is too simple for children and too difficult for adults is relevant here. Many conductors, following the trend of concert halls around the world, do not dare introduce such pristine lines into the now standard, overstuffed Romantic and post-Romantic concert environment. Factor out the contemporary music that is force-fed into the mix against the audience's wishes, and the bulk of evenings at Avery Fisher or the Barbican or the Concertgebouw can be seen to be built around only about 10 composers of fleshy and meaty symphonies from Beethoven to Shostakovich.

The latter, born in 1906, will ever be linked to the anniversary years of Mozart. Some venues, for example the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, will be presenting so much of his and Mozart's music this year that a visitor from another planet - or the average university-educated American, who knows as little about classical music - might think the two were twin gods who deigned to allow a few others to construct pale imitations of their art as tribute.

If there is indeed common ground between the persecuted Russian and the angst-ridden Viennese, it is the dirty little secret that, in each case, much of their music sounds remarkably similar. Mozart composed a great deal of marginal music, and not just as part of his prodigious juvenilia. An evening featuring more than one of these pieces can seem shallow and repetitive.

Likewise, much as I admire the Shostakovich symphonies, many colorful passages in the later efforts are transparent reworkings of ideas from the composer's previous orchestral essays. In 2006, the Emerson String Quartet will offer all 15 of the Shostakovich quartets; the quintet of evenings may be just a tad dull, as these works share very narrow harmonic vocabularies and similar emotionally charged devices for artistic expression. Each was made to be heard on its own, not as part of a compendium.

So just what is the relevance of the Mostly Mozart Festival when their composer will be center stage for an entire year? What degree of satiety will become excessive for listeners, and at what point will both having our cake and eating it degenerate into simple gluttony? I hope the quality of the individual concert will trump all other considerations, but what I am really curious about is next year.

Once we are all totally immersed in Mozartiana, it will be very challenging for the directors of the festival at Lincoln Center to remain relevant and yet interesting in 2006. Perhaps they can utilize their newly discovered connection between Mozart and Russia and present an entire summer of Shostakovich. Personally, I don't really care. I am thinking of taking a sabbatical in Styria.

Our Critic Recommends

I would venture to state that most serious music listeners have at least one Mozartian moment in their handful of most cherished auditory memories. "Soave sia il vento" from "Cosi Fan Tutte" is often excerpted as the most sublime number in all of opera, and the later symphonies, the adagio of the Clarinet Concerto, the string quintets, and the mature piano concerti all contain undeniably wondrous passages.

For me, the greatest moment in all of music occurs during the ending section of the overture to "The Magic Flute," when the overwhelmed composer can do no less than repeat that most exuberant of phrases, is, in fact, powerless to do otherwise, caught in the grip of divine inspiration. Not bad for a music hall theatrical.

Although it is always dangerous to predict the success of future performances, a few in the upcoming festival seem particularly promising. In particular, those evenings attempting to recreate the concert environment of Mozart's time may turn out to be the jewels in this particular crown.

The period instrument group Concert d'Astree and the superb Freiburg Baroque Orchestra will be offering programs concentrating on France (August 7) and Italy (August 14 & 15), respectively. For sheer talent of conductor and soloist, it would be hard to beat Paavo Jarvi and Viktoria Mullova in an all-Beethoven concert with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (August 4).

Finally, several of the fine soloists who are performing Mozart with the house orchestra - Emmanuel Ax (August 2 & 3), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (August 5), and Emmanuelle Haim (August 6) - will also be holding more intimate recitals at the Kaplan Penthouse as part of the "little night music" series at 10:30 p.m.

The Mostly Mozart Festival begins July 28 and continues until Saturday August 27 (Lincoln Center, 212-875-5456).

The New York Sun
105 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007
© 2005 The New York Sun


Blogger Joana said...

Wolfie rocks!!!


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