It Really Is About Mozart: Making connections in the Mostly Mozart Festival

Classic Arts Features   It Really Is About Mozart: Making connections in the Mostly Mozart Festival
It's a sense of continual discovery that drives Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, now in its 43rd season. The celebration ends Aug. 22 with Louis Langr_e conducting Haydn's Creation.


Just a few years ago: in time for the Mozart anniversary celebrations in 2006: came the startling announcement by a team of forensic scientists trying to authenticate the skull long believed to be the composer's (and reverently encased in the collection of Salzburg's International Mozarteum Foundation). Applying a CSI-style barrage of comparative DNA tests, they concluded that the evidence is... inconclusive.

It was a dramatic embodiment of what true Mozart lovers knew all along in their bones, so to speak: that however final our understanding of the composer seems, the unfathomable richness of his music always leaves more to be revealed. It's this sense of continual discovery that drives Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, now in its 43rd season and running through August 22.

In stark contrast to the memento mori of a skull, Mozart lives on not only in his own music but in the inspiration that a vast spectrum of other composers, right up to our own time, has drawn from him. Therein lies a key to Mostly Mozart's imaginative programming philosophy. Audiences gain new insight into his compositions by hearing them within larger, carefully planned contexts. These include the heirs of Mozart as well as the predecessors and contemporaries he himself admired and absorbed into his multi-faceted style.

"There's been a real shift in orientation to consider predecessors and successors," explains Jane Moss, Mostly Mozart's artistic director. "This came from a conscious effort on my part to expand the repertory not for its own sake but to get at the spirit of Mozart." The artistic breadth of the programming, Moss points out, reflects the composer's own ever-inquisitive, voracious nature.

At the same time, she adds, that doesn't mean other composers are randomly paired with Mozart. The goal is to look at these works "through the lens of Mozart himself." Moss likes to refer to the "six degrees of separation" principle: going backward and forward from Mozart as the center: whereby the rationale for inclusion can be easily visualized. This matrix extends to performers as well as composers. (The festival's website includes a link to a "Six Degrees of Mostly Mozart" diagram.)

In fact, with Mozart the connections are often surprisingly direct but also reinforced by secondary ones: thus Mendelssohn (whose Violin Concerto was performed by Joshua Bell in a Live From Lincoln Center telecast on August 12) was not only perceived as a "19th-century Mozart": he also spearheaded the Bach revival, which Mozart anticipated when he rediscovered the Baroque master's vitality, incorporating complex counterpoint into his late masterpieces.

Some of the connections are subtler. For his first appearance with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra July 31 and August 1, Edward Gardner (music director of English National Opera) complemented familiar Mozart masterpieces with Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. True, there are parallels between Britten and Mozart (both were prodigies and masters of the opera stage), but Gardner points to the "sense of fragile transparency and warmth" he feels makes a direct kinship between Britten and Mozartean classicism.

As Louis Langr_e, the Festival's Ren_e and Robert Belfer Music Director, points out, "We should never forget that Mozart composed only contemporary music!" Indeed, many of Mozart's peers considered his compositions difficult to fathom, even bizarre. Pianist and conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who made his Festival debut along with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on August 9 and 10, has added two icons of the modern avant-garde to the mix in concerts anchored around the more-familiar pairing of Mozart and Haydn. Aimard has a reputation for crafting programs intricately designed to relate contemporary music to the past; his contributions marked the first time Ligeti and Stockhausen have joined the august Mostly Mozart pantheon.

"The idea," says Aimard, "is to observe how similar ideas in composition can be treated differently" from the perspectives of the 18th versus the 20th century. For example, the "fluid phrases and perfect forms" of two Mozart piano concertos will be juxtaposed with experiments by Haydn that both Ligeti and Stockhausen echo (such as the mechanical play of the "Clock" Symphony side by side with the "crazy polyrhythms" of Ligeti's Chamber Concerto).

A moving example of the deep imprint Mozart continues to make on composers today was experienced in the much-anticipated New York premiere of John Adams's opera A Flowering Tree, a Lincoln Center co-commission and 50th Anniversary event on August 13 _16. Adams was this season's artist-in-residence at the Mostly Mozart Festival. The opera was first performed in Vienna in 2006 as part of the New Crowned Hope Festival, named after the Masonic lodge to which Mozart belonged. The brainchild of Peter Sellars (who directs A Flowering Tree), New Crowned Hope commissioned fresh pieces across the artistic disciplines that would reflect what Sellars calls "the luminous music of Mozart's final year." Adams looked to The Magic Flute as a model for A Flowering Tree. The opera, based on an ancient Tamil folk tale, concerns the initiation a pair of young lovers undergoes into a more complete understanding of life.

"The connection between my score and The Magic Flute," Adams observes, "is more one of spirit than of substance. Both operas share a central theme of youth, the evolution of moral consciousness, transformation (both physical and spiritual) and magic." The Schola Cantorum de Venezuela will be on hand to perform. "Even though it's a story from a specific culture," says Adams, "I thought this is a work that should transcend cultures."

While such connections are charting new territory in our appreciation of Mozart, even well-established ones come in for closer scrutiny in the Mostly Mozart Festival. Take the relationship between Mozart and Haydn, a focus because of the bicentennial year marking Haydn's death. We tend to assume the two are a natural pairing, yet Langr_e remarks on the profound differences that set them apart: "There was a generational difference, Haydn was from an underprivileged background, he learned to adapt his style to his patrons' taste while Mozart refused to compromise, and of course Haydn lived much longer. Yet somehow they complement each other and could find a deep spiritual friendship." Langr_e further points out that Mozart, who tended to disdain most of his contemporaries, dropped his guard around Haydn, who alone held "the secret to make me smile."

Closing the Festival on August 21 _22 will be a performance of a work especially dear to Langr_e, Haydn's Creation. "This really is a kind of climax of 18th-century inspiration," he says. "And it contains so many tributes to his late friend Mozart. Haydn's rigorous and clear form makes the musical and spiritual content, with its humanist Enlightenment, something that still sounds so amazing and courageous."


For a complete program schedule visit Mostly Mozart.

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