Mozart Now

Classic Arts Features   Mozart Now
On his 250th birthday, Mozart inspires four dynamic premieres at the 40th anniversary Mostly Mozart Festival. The festival opens on July 28.

Some part of Louis Langrée was a little concerned that there would be a bit too much Mozart this year. Of course, for the music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival, there's no such thing as too much Mozart, but planning the Festival during the 250th anniversary year of Mozart's birth, he says, "forces you to be even more imaginative."

"This year we were faced with a challenge," agrees Jane Moss, the Festival's artistic director and Lincoln Center's Vice President of Programming. "We knew there would be 2,000 celebrations in New York alone." Moss and Langrée answered that challenge by devising a way of putting Mozart into a modern context.

"Our overarching theme is that Mozart is alive and among us," explains Moss, "that he has such an immediate impact on our contemporary world, that he is not just this sort of bewigged figure from the 18th century." So while Mozart's birthday was January 27, and many of the major celebrations have passed by now, some of the most forward-thinking tributes are yet to come. For this summer, the Mostly Mozart Festival, which happens to be marking an anniversary of its own, its 40th, has commissioned four new works: a violin concerto by the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg; a suite of dances to Mozart's music by choreographer Mark Morris; a new staging of Mozart's unfinished opera, Zaide, by director Peter Sellars; and an ambitious audiovisual digital art installation by the OpenEnded Group.

Lindberg, a rising 47-year-old composer who has worked with such fellow Finns as Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and whose influences range from Beethoven to world music and punk rock, has written concertos for piano, clarinet, and cello. Now he turns to the violin with his first concerto for that instrument, which he wrote for violinist Lisa Batiashvili. When Maestro Langrée approached Lindberg about the commission, the composer says that his first reaction was panic: "I thought, 'Oh my God, what can I do that has anything to do with Mozart? He exists without my aid!' But then I thought, 'Instead of linking my music to the sort of untouchable world of Mozart, what if I were to write something for the same size orchestra he was using?'" The result will be a work scored for the same orchestration as the early Mozart violin concertos: a string section, two oboes, two bassoons, and two horns. "It's amazing how, with such a small wind section, he was capable of making so rich a sound," Lindberg marvels. A fitting complement to the new concerto will be Gidon Kremer's Festival performances of Mozart's complete violin concertos.

Mark Morris, at once a renegade and an icon, has been called the Mozart of modern dance. More than any other choreographer working today, Morris is responsible for introducing classical music audiences to modern dance by presenting pieces set to excellent music and played live by top-flight musicians. His L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, danced to the music by Handel, was presented at the 2002 and 2005 Mostly Mozart Festivals. Morris made his conducting debut earlier this spring, leading his troupe's music ensemble on the opening nights of his 25th-anniversary season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

He admits, however, that it took him years to appreciate Mozart's music. "It just seemed too evident and too plain," he recalls. "Of course it's none of that. It's miraculously deep and thrilling."

The choreographer returns to the Festival with the premiere of Mozart Dances, a full-evening suite set to Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 11 and 27 and the Sonata in D for two pianos. The performance will feature the Mark Morris Dance Group, pianist Emanuel Ax, pianist Yoko Nozaki (Ax's wife), and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with Langrée at the podium. "It's more Mozart piano music than would be on a regular concert," boasts Morris. "It's a giant immersion."

In a new production of Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide, the dynamic director Peter Sellars turns the spotlight on issues of human rights, as the tragic romance plays out in a contemporary sweatshop, with a black and Asian cast. Mozart began Zaide when he was 23 but put it aside to work on Idomeneo (which Les Arts Florissants, led by William Christie, will also perform during the Festival), and abandoned it altogether on the advice of friends who told him it was too serious for the Viennese public. Sellars describes the work as "a passionate antislavery drama of reconciliation between Europeans and the Muslim world, charged with the white heat of urgent social change." It is loaded with themes that are especially relevant today. He told the Guardian in London, "The ending is quite perfect because it is a plea for mercy, and we don't know what the next step will be, which, you could say, is where we are at the beginning of the 21st century with the Muslim world and the West." Zaide will also be an unusual experience for audiences, notes Sellars, because by and large, the music‹performed by the period-instrument ensemble Concerto Köln (led by Langrée in his New York opera debut)‹is not well known. The meeting of the Eastern and Western worlds continues after the final two performances of Zaide, with two late-night concerts, featuring Concerto Köln and the ensemble Sarband, which draws from European, Jewish, and Muslim musical traditions. These concerts are part of the Festival's continuing series of intimate, late-night performances, "A Little Night Music."

Lincoln Center audiences have previously seen the work of digital artists Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser, and Shelley Eshkar‹the OpenEnded Group‹accompanying works by choreographers Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. This summer, anyone who happens to be walking around the Josie Robertson Plaza will experience the group's latest artwork, Enlightenment, 24 hours a day during the five weeks of the festival. A public art installation was Moss's idea, but she had no idea the result could be the highest resolution live digital artwork ever created. A computer network analyzes the final moments of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony on ten plasma screens and ten sets of speakers (representing the different sections of the orchestra) facing out from the facade of Avery Fisher Hall. "Our 'holy grail' is to create a much deeper and more intelligent interplay between sound and image," explains Kaiser, "one in which the images seem to think about the sound‹the effort of their thinking being fully visible to the viewer." The computers work their way through various possibilities, making lots of mistakes along the way, before arriving at the correct conclusion approximately every 30 minutes. "We have 20 seconds of music from the Age of the Enlightenment, and it's so complex that we had to slow it way down, take it apart, and then painstakingly put it back together again before we could even begin to understand it," Kaiser explains. And, as it turns out, adds Moss, "the computer is actually much, much slower than Mozart," who, as far as we know, composed those 20 seconds‹in about 20 seconds.

"The music of Mozart goes beyond just music," declares Langrée. "It's a vision of the world."

Alicia Zuckerman writes about classical music and dance. Her radio reporting on the arts has aired on NPR, WYNC, and American Public Media.

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