"Mozart was a complete pro, a Savile Row tailor who never did anything that wasn't custom made," says pianist and scholar Robert Levin, explaining the rationale behind the two-season Mozart Explored series he is hosting at Carnegie Hall to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in 1756.
"Mozart has been called the most universal composer in the history of Western music," explains Levin, "because he used every genre prevalent during his lifetime and cultivated it deeply. Beethoven wrote one opera, Mozart wrote some 20; Beethoven wrote five piano concertos, Mozart wrote 23. Mozart wrote for every imaginable combination: arias, ensembles, oratorios, operas, songs, trios, duos, and so on." And, of course, Mozart wrote Masses, the most famous of which‹the Requiem and the Mass in C Minor‹he left unfinished. So in addition to his Mozart Explored series, Levin recently offered yet another contribution to the Mozart celebrations by completing the great composer's Mass in C Minor. Levin's new edition, commissioned by The Carnegie Hall Corporation through the generosity of The Maria and Robert A. Skirnick Fund for New Works, was a triumph in January, when it was premiered by the Carnegie Hall Festival Chorus and the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of Helmuth Rilling.
For Mozart Explored, Levin says that his mandate was to present an overview of Mozart's chamber music, highlighting repertoire that usually receives less time in the limelight than, for example, the string quartets. Thus he is presenting repertoire in thematic concerts so that instead of doing all the piano trios or all the string quartets, "every concert in the series places the music in the context of the social relationships of Mozart's day," showcasing the kind of chamber music he wrote for different circumstances. For instance, one concert last October, For Friends and Informal Gatherings, featured music that Mozart wrote for personal friends, including the Duo for Violin and Viola in B-flat Major and the Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano in E-flat Major.
The April 28 concert, Amateurs and Virtuosi, in which Levin will perform alongside pianist Malcolm Bilson, "reflects above all Mozart's association with his pupils," says Levin. "He taught, as most people did who were freelancers at the time, to enrich his income, and his primary pupils were the daughters of the well-to-do or linked to the aristocracy," such as Therese von Trattner for whom Mozart composed the Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor.
Next season's concerts in the series include a recital in December called Indoor and Outdoor Entertainment, which will feature Mozart's Suite from The Marriage of Figaro, arranged for wind ensemble by Johann Wendt, the Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, and the Serenade for Winds in C Minor.
Levin believes that the 20th century "has produced a schism that is disastrous for the arts. With few exceptions, the gap between popular music and art music at the present time is huge. And when classical artists do crossover albums they often become controversial in the view of certain people. So it's interesting to have a series of concerts that come from an era when music transcended social class; when folk and popular and art music coexisted and intermingled; and when performers and composers were one and the same. It was a much more volatile and universal kind of approach, and there is much in all of that we need to think about."
Two-and-a-half centuries after his birth, will Mozart ever go out of fashion? Levin replies that certain works have always hit high and low periods, such as the Mendelssohn piano concertos, which were much more popular 50 years ago than they are now. And while at times Mozart has been less in favor with critics or the public, musicians have always wanted to play him. "I don't think that's likely to change," says Levin.
And, he adds, Mozart's universality will make his music relevant for years to come: "I feel that the more one knows about music and life and human nature, the more one understands the uncanny way this man found the sound and tonal equivalence of our longings, our terrors, our laughter‹our sinister as well as our lighter side."
Vivien Schweitzer has written for TimeOut, Newsday, and the Financial Times.