SA celebrates Mozart’s 250th birthday with festivals worthy of his hometown
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most revered musical figures in the Western Classical tradition. Known almost as much for his colorful, legendary life and death as for his compositional genius, Mozart is both the classic “musician’s musician” and a mythic figure for the masses. January 27 marks the 250th anniversary of the great composer’s birth, and music lovers all over the world will be celebrating, all year long, the life and work of one of the West’s most widely acknowledged musical masters.
Born in Salzburg in 1756, Mozart was considered a keyboard virtuoso by age 6 and was already composing small-scale works. Under the tutelage and guidance of his devoted musician father, Leopold, Mozart traveled extensively throughout Austria, Germany, Italy, and to London and Paris. Unlike the typical child prodigy, Mozart’s talent and passion for music only intensified over the years. He seemed to absorb musical information, internalizing the structures, styles, and formal logic of the era while maintaining an inexhaustible penchant for melodic invention, dramatic integrity, and sheer musicality. By the end of his relatively short life (Mozart died in Vienna in 1797 at age 35), he had composed more than 600 works ranging from solo piano sonatas and small ensemble works to full-scale symphonies, concertos, vocal, and choral works, and some of the best operas ever written.
The degree to which Mozart, from his first days to his last, experienced the world through music has led many a pragmatic observer to suspect divine inspiration. Yet his unsanctimonious, bawdy, and refreshingly irreverent character makes him a bit of an everyman, too. His mythic death fuels the Mozart mystique: In the midst of composing the “Requiem” for a mysterious and anonymous patron, an unnamed illness slowly drains his health and energy, leading to rumors of unnatural causes at the hand of a jealous rival, and ending with his burial in a pauper’s grave in a driving rain. While the pristine nature of his work lies in drastic contrast to the disorder of the rest of his life, the dramatic nature of Mozart’s life and death mirrors that of his best operas. His genius has captured the imagination and passion of music lovers and other artists for more than two centuries. More significantly, Mozart’s music is as popular now as it ever was.
While hardcore fans make pilgrimage arrangements for year-long festivities in the well-prepared cities of Vienna and Salzburg, San Antonio musicians are making it easy to honor the great musician locally with a spring season filled with Mozartean treasures. With more than 600 works to choose from, how does one pick?
“I think the man was literally incapable of writing a bad piece” says Ken Freudigman, principal cellist for the San Antonio Symphony and co-founder of Camerata San Antonio, which performs its Happy Birthday Mr. Mozart! concert January 8. For this program, co-founders Freudigman and violist Emily Watkins say they want to show Mozart’s range, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The program will start with a “Divertimento” for violin, viola, and cello. It’s considered one of his most beautiful trios, and the program continues with an equally beautiful horn quintet, concluding with a turn toward the silly with Mozart’s “A Musical Joke,” which pokes fun at musical clichés and musician stereotypes.
Some things never change, and Mozart wasn’t above inserting humor into his compositions to demonstrate the truism. Says Watkins, “Most people, even if they’ve never set foot in a recital hall, would name either Beethoven or Mozart if asked to name a classical composer, and there’s just something a little friendlier about Mozart.”
That friendliness is a feature of both the man and the music, and Musical Bridges Around the World is going to great lengths to prove it. With its comprehensive “Mozart All the Way,” the entire season is given over to Mozart in grand style. Pianist and Artistic Director Anya Grokhovski says, “As a musician, Mozart is almost a sacred figure to me. He has a vast repertoire and we wanted to show some of that range.” At their popular Musica Viva house concerts, MBAW is focusing, appropriately, on Mozart’s chamber works. In the main concert series, the repertoire runs the gamut from traditional works such as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” to Valeri Grohovski’s amazingly successful jazz arrangement of the “B Flat Major Piano Sonata,” and the April 2 performance of the great sacred choral work, “Vesperae solemnis de confessore.”
Inspired by Mozart’s love of the theater and a desire to find an entertaining, accessible way to educate audiences, MBAW is donning period costumes and has enlisted the talent of Theatrical Director Laralee List Wahrmand in scripting and staging theatrical interludes that replace standard program notes. Actors portraying Leopold, Wolfgang, and his devoted wife, Constanze, provide background on the individual works and provide character sketches that give life to the composer as the musicians give life to his music.
It is, after all, Mozart’s character that drives much of the mystique. For many people, the 1984 Milos Forman film of Peter Schaffer’s play, Amadeus, informs much of what we know of the composer’s later years and his notorious death. Fictionalized and stylized, the play elaborates on well-established speculation about Mozart’s relationships to draw out its themes, and the film does a remarkable job of contextualizing the events with lavish sets and costumes. On January 26, MBAW and the Rialto Cinema will provide a rare opportunity to view the director’s cut of the film on the big screen, following a gala dinner and performance. Expect a spectacle: At last report, costumes were being encouraged and there was talk of horse-drawn carriages. They were still trying to accommodate the carnivalesque street performers, but I’m sure they’ll work it out. I suspect Mozart would approve.
He might not approve of the mythology surrounding his colleague Antonio Salieri, depicted as the lesser artist wracked with jealousy and ill will in Amadeus. Salieri was, at the time, the more successful composer, with the court appointment Mozart longed for. He was, in actuality, one of the few who accompanied Mozart’s coffin at the funeral and, in later years, had the distinction of having both Beethoven and Schubert as pupils. MBAW audiences will hear Salieri’s “Concerto in C Major” for flute, oboe, and orchestra on January 29, followed by the Rimsky-Korsakov opera in one act called Mozart and Salieri, based on Pushkin’s Little Legend, which has Salieri poisoning Mozart in his jealousy. The truth of the relationship may never be known, but speculation continues to be excellent artistic fodder.
So, in fact, has Mozart’s music. Later this season, on May 2, SOLI Chamber Ensemble will investigate works by contemporary composers who are still inspired by Mozart’s themes. The SA Symphony and Mastersingers will present two of Mozart’s great choral works February 3-4, the “Ave verum corpus,” and his “Trinity Mass in C major.” The Alamo City Men’s Chorale will present a Mostly Mozart concert April 1-2, featuring the two Masonic cantatas for men’s voices. Even Texas Public Radio is sponsoring a members-only Mozart event starring eight local ensembles.
Mozart’s love of the theater is evident in his numerous operas. In what must be a test of musical endurance, this summer’s Salzburg Festival will present all 22 of Mozart’s works for the stage in less than 6 weeks. Local audiences will have to be content with one well-executed version of The Magic Flute by the Lyric Opera of San Antonio, January 20-22. Mozart had little use for folk music, but he had a great love for the humor and spectacle of popular theater of the time. In The Magic Flute, Mozart utilized elements of the popular German singspiel to create a new kind of opera that would, eventually, pave the way for German opera to flourish in the 19th century. Incorporating Masonic themes and imagery with enchanted forests and a classic operatic love story, this is “one of the most famous operas, with some of the most memorable melodies, ever written. This music is still as remarkable today as it was in Mozart’s day,” says Artistic Director Mark Richter. The work will be performed in English (he assures us it’s an excellent translation), with fanstastical sets and costumes, by nationally respected singers. To encourage families to attend, children will be admitted free with a paying adult.
If we were in Vienna or Salzburg, we could take advantage of the walking tours of Mozart’s homes and haunts, the many performances, exhibitions of original manuscripts, and other festival events throughout the year. Considering that Mozart wasn’t particularly fond of either city and only felt truly at home in his music, our local Mozart festival is, in some ways, just as appropriate. It is, after all, the art that matters most. •