When we look for answers to life's big questions, we look to sources that can answer them directly: to science, to thought, and when we run dry of charts and words, we look to music. The theme of this year's Mostly Mozart Festival addresses one of these larger issues, "Loss and Transfiguration." After all, most of the established canon: as well as the soon-to-be established: deals with these ideas in one way or another, and it is exactly because of its particular depth of field that this music survives against ever dwindling cultural odds.
As our culture rages on, the way in which we think about: and listen to: music changes, and so must the events that surround it. Programming, like art, has a Zeitgeist. "The programming world is Jungian," says Jane S. Moss, artistic director of the Mostly Mozart Festival. "A collective unconscious exists, with emerging themes. Now more than ever, I think people are looking for distinctive projects with an impact; they want a 'performing experience' rather than having a performance passively wash over them. They are looking for emotional engagement and meaning."
"Themes evolve," says Moss. "You start with an acorn and end up with an oak tree. Having a strong theme expands the repertoire we can do, but all of it ties back to Mozart. With a Mozart focus every year we are able to travel far from home, and yet have a strong and important point to which we can return."
With a wealth of options to choose from, the opening concert of this year's Mostly Mozart on July 29 manages to speak thematic volumes. Music director Louis Langree's pairing of Mozart's 40th Symphony with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde boldly asserts the Festival's theme. The former is the doyenne of the first Viennese School's most tumultuous essays, with its minor key ambiguity and all-but-kitchen-sink style shifts; the latter a fin de siecle take on despair-that-leads-to-hope from the godfather of the subsequent Viennese school.
One of the journeys the festival takes this year: the "mostly" part of Mostly Mozart: is through the work of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, whose music will be a focus. "Part of our intention in incorporating contemporary music in Mostly Mozart is to establish the vital creative force Mozart produces in our own time, and affirm his presence in our musical life and culture," says Moss. "The image of Mozart as simply an historical figure in a powdered wig is not an accurate picture. By juxtaposing Mozart with the composers that followed him: right up through the present moment: the richness and complexity of his contribution and influence is brought to light."
One of this year's most anticipated events, however, remains the United States premiere of Saariaho's La Passion de Simone, a Lincoln Center commission (and, to make things complete, also inspired by Mozart's Requiem). The oratorio, written for soprano Dawn Upshaw and directed by Peter Sellars, addresses the life and works of the French philosopher/mystic Simone Weil, who died young in the midst of World War II as she refused to eat more than her occupied countrymen. Her book of aphorisms Gravity and Grace was one of Saariaho's only possessions as a young immigrant. Weil was a religious ecstatic who trucked in the real. "Two forces rule the universe," she wrote, "light and gravity." Recast that, and you have the essence of Mozart's genius: his seemingly limitless capacity to set the most screamingly funny against the darkest and most profound: as well as the essence of this year's Mostly Mozart Festival.
In line with the kind of "experiences" Moss believes her audience wants to have are two productions very new to this festival: Requiem, a dance/theater work by Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, inspired by Mozart's Requiem but rooted in South Pacific ritual, and one of Lynette Wallworth's interactive video installations in the Rose Theater Atrium, Invisible by Night, all about grief. In one, music for the dead crosses cultural borders; in the other, the "fourth wall" of concert viewing is broken, with the audience participating in the work, connected, personally involved.
This year's festival closes on August 22 _23 with a program featuring the festival namesake's epochal Mass in C minor alongside Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen. And in between, a whole bevy of composers: from Webern to Sibelius, Faure, to, well, Mozart: whose work is illustrative of either loss, transfiguration, or how the two themes are hardly exclusive. Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht (all about loss and transformation), Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat major (his opus posthumous), two takes on Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande (a play all about loss), Beethoven's heroic Third Symphony (with its failed program) and Thomas Ades' Arcadiana (paradise, with all its attendant problems) all speak in different ways: and in different languages: to the same question.
"The experiences we offer are the opposite of what our increasingly distracted world is used to," says Moss. "Essential inner truths, complexity, unmatched beauty, and the transcendent are the messages of Mozart, his predecessors, and his successors. I never worry about the future of classical music because it is far greater than the limitations of the time in which it is performed and far greater than the limitations of our own lives. It will transcend any century."
Daniel Felsenfeld is a composer who writes frequently about classical music.