Mostly Mozart Festival 2013: Viennese Connections

Classic Arts Features   Mostly Mozart Festival 2013: Viennese Connections
In 1787, at age 16, Ludwig van Beethoven traveled alone from Bonn to Vienna with the intentionof studying with Mozart. The timing was not propitious. Mozart was immersed in composingDon Giovanni for its fall premiere in Prague.

Only a few days before Beethoven arrived in early April, Mozart learned his father was gravely ill. Beethoven's Viennese sojourn was brief. The two composers met, but the planned course of study would be undertaken several years later: and with Joseph Haydn. By the time Beethoven returned to settle in the Imperial capital in 1792, Mozart had died.

Beethoven's work lends special focus to this year's Mostly Mozart Festival in ways varied and new. Notwithstanding Beethoven's prominence, emphasis remains on its namesake in a manner that provides a kaleidoscopic picture of the achievements of both. Music director Louis Langr_e explains, "to explore and concentrate on their differences, as well as to what binds Mozart and Beethoven together, offers something wonderful for audiences and the musicians."

Opening night illustrates the point. The program, with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, includes the Mozart tour-de-force scena "Ch'io mi scordi di te...Non temer, amato bene," K.505, for mezzo-soprano, piano, and orchestra, whose writing for voice and piano is as affecting and brilliant as any in Mozart's operas and piano concertos. Two Beethoven works, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Seventh Symphony, signal audacious innovation in form and genre as well as enlarged dimensions of expressive content and instrumental virtuosity.

Throughout August, Langr_e and the Festival Orchestra, along with a roster of guest conductors, some making Mostly Mozart debuts, present five Beethoven symphonies, providing an overview of Beethoven's orchestral accomplishment. Pianists Emanuel Ax and Paul Lewis appear in concertos by Beethoven and Mozart, respectively. Chamber music also assumes prominence. The Emerson String Quartet performs Beethoven's three iconoclastic "Razumovsky" Quartets at Alice Tully Hall and the Leipzig String Quartet pairs Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K.499, with the "Serioso" Quartet by Beethoven in a late-night concert at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. Its sweeping Manhattan views excepted, the Penthouse comes close to the princely chamber in which these works were originally heard.

Langr_e gives context to Beethoven's achievement. "He was responsible for innovations, many revolutionary, but he was able to realize them because of the heritage of Viennese classics." Case in point: Mozart's last three symphonies, composed in rapid succession in summer 1788. They opened the door to a new era, reshaping listeners' expectations through their harmonic and contrapuntal daring, vivid instrumental color, emotional weight, and formal balance. The triptych: Symphonies No. 39 in E-flat major, No. 40 in G Minor, and No. 41 in C major, "Jupiter": closes out the Festival this August.

The innovative International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), in its third year as Artists-in-Residence at Mostly Mozart, celebrates its 10th anniversary with a dazzling mini-festival of new music and premieres by 10 New York _based composers including David Lang, Matthias Pintscher, the esteemed Pauline Oliveros (in celebration of her 80th birthday), Tyshawn Sorey, Maria Stankova, and Felipe Lara. Beethoven's profile as innovator is on display, too. For jazz musician and electronic music composer George Lewis, the Beethoven Septet in E-flat major provides inspiration for interpolations involving electronics within the piece's original woodwind-and-string instrument scoring.

ICE's residency takes place in the Clark Studio Theater, a black-box performance space, the ideal setting for Lang's The Whisper Opera, for soprano and four instruments, whose staging requires performers and spectators in close proximity. Its libretto is drawn from "secrets," variously revealed on the internet. With rejoinders to expressions such as "When I am alone, I always..." the piece "explores the notion of written script and takes that exploration to marvelous extremes," says Claire Chase, ICE's artistic director. The chamber opera's hushed dynamics and provocative text require attentive listening that stresses, above all, the essential experience of live performance in our modern age.

According to Jane Moss, Ehrenkranz Artistic Director of Lincoln Center and the Mostly Mozart Festival, "ICE's programs recontextualize the Festival. Lincoln Center provides a showcase but also a platform." Langr_e concurs, "ICE's participation compels everyone in the audience to consider that Mozart composed contemporary music." Indeed, Mozart and contemporary music make good company. Moss recommends booking early, adding, "People are keen to hear this music.

The semi-staged performances of Don Giovanni by conductor Ivšn Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 2011 at Mostly Mozart proved revelatory. This summer, Fischer and his troupe return with a second Mozart _Da Ponte opera, Le nozze di Figaro, in a staging that promises to be comparably beguiling. As last time, Fischer acts as impresario: directing and conducting. For the conductor, Figaro provides the opportunity to consider transformation manifest in the Beaumarchais play and Mozart opera: the society of the ancien r_gime and individual identity. Costumes are key, as signifier and metaphor. Fischer says, "Dress is the main tool to change identity. So I have decided to separate the singers from their costumes. And because dress assumes central focus, the performance will begin as a concert and then, eventually, be dressed up as an opera."

Mostly Mozart is well known for introducing musicians to New York audiences. This summer, German _born David Afkham, winner of the Nestl_ and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, joins the ranks of past debut conductors Yannick N_zet-S_guin and Pablo Heras-Casado. Afkham leads an all- Brahms program that features violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Truls Mêªrk in Brahms's final orchestral composition, the Concerto for violin and cello in A major, and his Second Symphony. Though the sound worlds of Mozart and Brahms stand apart, it is worth remembering that the orchestra of which Brahms was particularly fond: the ducal court of Meiningen: approximated more closely the Mostly Mozart ensemble than our 21st-century symphonic orchestra.

Significantly, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major dates from a decade earlier than the Brahms Double Concerto. Frequent Mostly Mozart guest Joshua Bell returns as violin soloist in the brilliant and fiendishly difficult work. The Festival Orchestra: transformed during Langr_e's tenure into a fleet and stylistically flexible group: will doubtless provide an unparalleled textural clarity enabling audiences to hear the work afresh. It is always good to cultivate and enrich our Mozart sound with what came before and with what came after," says Langr_e.


Mario R. Mercado, author of The Evolution of Mozart's Pianistic Style, is arts editor of Travel + Leisure.

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