Getting Fresh With Mozart

He wrote about 650 pieces; why do we always hear the same old six?

It's Mozart's 250th birthday, and almost as prevalent as concerts of his music are complaints by critics that everyone plays Mozart all the time anyway. How do you keep standard repertory fresh and bring in audiences in such a situation? With Mozart's birth (1756) and death (1791) both celebrated every 50 years, we've barely had time to get over the 1991 party.

Any music festival's first responsibility in programming, I suppose, is to justify itself—to convince concertgoers that saturation bombing of Composer X (or Period Y or Geographic Region Z) is warranted. Among a somewhat halfhearted collection of standard-repertory symphonies and concertos, the Seattle Symphony's January Mozart festival took an oddly funereal tone with a performance of his Requiem. No doubt, there were some concertgoers puzzled that it was his birth, not his death, that was being observed—not to mention that the SSO plays the work every year anyway, and it's only half by Mozart.

On the other hand, its Feb. 2 concert told us something new: Opulent, Technicolor arrangements of Mozart's music by Tchaikovsky (a few obscure piano pieces) and Richard Strauss (an ensemble from the opera Idomeneo) showed us how two arch-Romantics reworked Wolfgang in their own image. Their admiration for him didn't prevent them from tinkering with holy writ, revealing that our culture's own worshipful attitude toward Mozart is a recent development.

Yet the essential Mozart in these reworkings survives and shines through—just as it did in an even more daring reimagining, the big-band version of Symphony No. 40 that, as played by the UW Studio Jazz Ensemble, made a fantastic climax to the School of Music's Feb. 9 all-Mozart evening. Witty without being shticky, it demonstrated how little you had to alter (a ninth chord here, a syncopation there) to twist one idiom into another, and how thin and fragile are the walls we build to compartmentalize musical genres.

The Northwest Sinfonietta put Mozart in historical context by placing his music next to that of a typical 18th-century journeyman like Antonio Salieri. The two sinfonias played on its Feb. 17 program were snappy little numbers, but alongside Mozart's Symphony No. 36—richer, more imaginative, and more compelling—the difference between craftsmanship and genius becomes clearer. And remember which one had the fame, the money, and the cushy Kapellmeister post; ponder the relationship between immediate popularity and lasting artistic value, and you may pause a moment the next time you're inclined to dismiss an "inaccessible" piece of new music.

Yet why pick on Salieri? Mozart's peaks can be put into perspective as well by his own lesser works. Earlier this month, the Seattle Symphony did a salutary service in this season of reverence by presenting a rare Mozartean misfire: the Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, a leaden, charm-free string version of an earlier work for two pianos. Wolfgang could turn out four-voice counterpoint like nobody's business, but he sure didn't have Bach's skill at keeping things moving along.

Even with a composer this beloved, programmers still gravitate to the greatest hits. It was already a problem in 1891, when George Bernard Shaw griped about the unadventurous death-centennial observances: "The Crystal Palace committed itself to the 'Jupiter' Symphony and the Requiem; the Albert Hall, by way of varying the entertainment, announced the Requiem and the 'Jupiter' Symphony."

But back then, much of his music was still unexplored. Exhibit A, Cosí fan tutte, Seattle Opera's contribution to this Mozart season (Feb. 25–March 11) was ignored in the 19th century and didn't earn warhorse status until the 1970s. (Strauss sugared up Idomeneo to make it go down easy for a 1937 audience.) But what's left to discover, and where do we go from here?

Myself, I've always wanted to hear an unfinished Requiem—a performance confined strictly to the notes Mozart left, without any cobbling up by Süssmayr, even if some passages are just first-violin/bass skeletons, even if others trail off midphrase. After all, wouldn't that be more poignant? Here Death stayed the Master's hand. . . . 

Then there are the oddball pieces Mozart devoted more time to than maybe any other famous composer. Chamber music for glass harmonica. Divertimenti for two flutes, five trumpets, and timpani. The proto-Cagean Musical Dice Game, 16 bars in minuet tempo that can be played in any order. Or his overture to the ballet Les petits riens, the best Mozart overture you've never heard. Perhaps some choir could take up the vocal canons on naughty texts, like "Leck mich im Arsch," K. 231, which means in English exactly what it sounds like in German.

Asked about her ideal Mozart commemoration, Seattle Baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews confessed to voice envy: "The way Mozart spins a tune in his vocal writing, to me, is something every violinist should study! Then there is the sorcererlike ability to evoke and manipulate human emotions." Or, alternately, "It wouldn't be bad to be locked up in a room with a feather bed and a dessert tray and listen to all the piano concertos one after another."

Conductor Roupen Shakarian's dream concert? "Tough call, but . . . a wind Serenade, the Sinfonia Concertante, the C-minor Mass." And Adam Stern's Mozart wish runs counter to current musical correctness: "Any and all Mozart is always welcome—so long as it's not played on period instruments."

gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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