Increasingly over the years, Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival has taken as a core principle the idea of multiple voices. Mostly Mozart weaves together not only the varying strands of musical tradition, personality and interpretative style down through the ages; it also incorporates dance, theater and visual arts, as well as the influence of other cultures.
From August 13 to 16 in various Lincoln Center venues, Mostly Mozart will present a festival within a festival, one devoted literally to the musical art of lacing together multiple voices, or lines: polyphony. Titled Bach & Polyphonies: and curated by French pianist and Mostly Mozart artist-in-residence Pierre-Laurent Aimard: the six-event series takes as its basis works by history's grand master of polyphony: Johann Sebastian Bach. The mini-festival will also explore the pre-Bach polyphony of the East and West, along with the modern application of the art by such composers as Gy‹rgy Ligeti and Elliott Carter.
Aimard is the rare musician whose expertise and enthusiasms span the centuries from Bach to Pierre Boulez: and even jump to the Pygmy music of Africa. The pianist describes Bach as "the most phenomenal polyphonist, with the most marvelous brain, able to organize the most challenging architectures in music." Yet, he adds, this series of concerts is "an occasion not only to re-live Bach's music in all its depth and irresistible life, but also a chance to discover new music or music coming from different parts of the planet, all more or less polyphonic."
Three programs in Bach & Polyphonies pair Aimard with his close partners in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (their collaborations always being occasions of "great joy," says the pianist). They will be performing a selection of Bach's Keyboard Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos, paired variously with traditional Georgian choral works and modern music by Carter, Boulez and Ligeti. The August 15 program at Alice Tully Hall features the Piano Quintet by American centenarian Elliott Carter, whom Aimard calls "the greatest living polyphonist." Carter's piece is for five players playing five lines: and with each of those lines at a different tempo.
Perhaps the most exotic music will be that performed by Ensemble Basiani, the Georgian choir making its North American debut in two Mostly Mozart concerts. Aimard has been drawn to the very Old World sound of Georgian polyphony since he first visited Russia 30 years ago and brought back recordings of this choral music-making.
"I was fascinated by this incredibly varied and rich polyphonic tradition of Georgia, where music plays a main role in unifying the country and allowing people to express many different dimensions of their culture," Aimard explains. "It became a goal of mine to experience this music live. I've never been able to go to Georgia, unfortunately. So I thought by inviting a Georgian choir to perform I would finally be able to hear this music in person: as well as share it with others, of course."
Aimard's programs are like Swiss watches, working together in intricate ways to mark different periods and places in music and how they connect by degrees. One such concert, on August 13 at Alice Tully Hall, features Ensemble Basiani trading the stage with vocal group Ars Nova Copenhagen led by Paul Hillier (making their Mostly Mozart debuts).
This joint vocal program reveals the ancient roots of polyphony with the Georgian choir in a cappella sacred pieces, while Ars Nova underscores the more contemporary explorations of the art with Ligeti's Lux Aeterna, a landmark of what the composer dubbed "micropolyphony." The program's centerpiece is Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude. And as counterpoint to these religious works is one with a very human message: Nuits by Iannis Xenaxis. The composer, who lost friends (and one of his eyes) in Greece's mid-'40s civil war, dedicated this piece to the world's political prisoners.
Presented alone in A Little Night Music, Mostly Mozart's line of late-night concerts in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Ars Nova Copenhagen and Hillier will perform an August 14 program that ranges from early masterpieces of English polyphony by John Taverner and William Byrd to the affecting counterpoint of contemporary American David Lang and the North American premiere of Australian composer Ross Edwards' Sacred Kingfisher Psalms.
Another group with a Bach & Polyphonies program is the International Contemporary Ensemble, with the Chicago-New York group conducted by Ludovic Morlot (and featuring Aimard as guest). Including a Purcell Fantasia arranged by George Benjamin and a movement from Bach's The Art of Fugue arranged by Luciano Berio, the August 16 Rose Theater concert will also illustrate disparate brands of modernist polyphony with Benjamin's Antara, Harrison Birtwistle's Slow Frieze and Helmut Lachenmann's Mouvement.
Throughout Bach & Polyphonies, Aimard may speak before a piece, "a delightful opportunity for the audience," says Jane Moss, artistic director of Mostly Mozart and vice president of programming at Lincoln Center. "Pierre-Laurent isn't just this fantastic pianist; he's a passionate musical explorer, and that curiosity is infectious with listeners and everyone around him. Last summer, he spoke before a Stockhausen piece, and it might've been the first time a lot of people there didn't just hear Stockhausen but really listened."
Some might describe such a cross-cultural, era-spanning, genre-colliding series as Bach & Polyphonies as pushing the envelope for Mostly Mozart. But Moss takes the long view: "When Mostly Mozart began forty-five years ago, it was a radical project just by virtue of making it: nobody believed there was a summer audience, much less an audience for indoor events. That was radical enough for then, but this isn't your mother's Mostly Mozart, as we like to say. What Mostly Mozart is in 2010 shouldn't be what it was in the '60s. Life changes: life is change.
"But most important, the audience has grown with Mostly Mozart," Moss adds. "Downtown new-music hipsters didn't use to think of Mostly Mozart as the place to be for contemporary music. Just as I don't think dance fans thought of Mostly Mozart as a forum for the Mark Morris Dance Group. But by bringing in different elements: in the case of Bach & Polyphonies, Baroque music, contemporary music, music from around the world: we're bringing different types of listeners together to make a new, 21st-century Mostly Mozart audience."
As for Aimard, what does he think listeners will make of his "interesting confrontations" in this carefully crafted mini-festival? "Who knows what people will think? I create such programs and propose them full of excitement. The audiences react as they will; they are free. This is a democracy, a wonderful thing. So, we will perform. They will listen. And we will all see."