The Modern Mind of Mozart
By Peter Matthews
The Mostly Mozart Festival celebrates the 10th season of Renée and Robert Belfer Music Director Louis Langrée with the music of Schubert and the sound of birdsong.
Composers have always found insipration in birdsong. Mozart was no exception. “He was deeply enamored of birds,” says Jane Moss, Ehrenkranz Artistic Director of Lincoln Center and Artistic Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which celebrates its 46th season this summer from July 28 to August 25. “He kept a pet starling in his house,” Moss says, “and incorporated some of its songs into his music.
Indeed, birds will be a major focus throughout this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival: from the Janet Cardiff/George Bures Miller sound installation The Murder of Crows, to lectures and panel discussions on the connection between birds and music. Bird-inspired music will also feature prominently: from Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong, to Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (“Exotic Birds”).
In addition, this season will be a celebration of Louis Langrée’s 10th year as Mostly Mozart’s Music Director. Langrée admits that he’s seen a number of changes over the past decade—from the introduction of contemporary programming, to the addition of late-night recitals—but plays down his own role. “It was never my intention to just come in and make changes,” Langrée says. “It was more organic than that.” Looking back, Langrée adds that he is particularly fond of some of the Festival’s more unusual musical explorations. “In 2006, we commissioned Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto, which now is performed all over the world. We’ve performed Mozart’s Requiem with Indian and Persian musicians (2004), and Monteverdi’s Vespers alongside Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul (2007).”
But what he’s been most proud of is his relationship with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. “I only get to see this orchestra for five weeks a year,” Langrée says. “And, yet, each year when I come back, we’re able to find our connection almost immediately. It is a deeply happy relationship. I love them. And, they love me too, I think.”
After a free preview concert, Langrée will conduct the opening night: an all-Mozart program including the Overture to La clemenza di Tito, the Piano Concerto No. 20 (with Nelson Freire), two concert arias sung by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and the “Prague” Symphony No. 38. “What makes this orchestra so great is its flexibility,” Langrée says. “A symphony orchestra would be too big to perform the ‘Prague’ Symphony, a chamber orchestra too small.”
On August 10–11, Langrée conducts Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto (with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) and Lutoslawski’s Musique funèbre, the sort of classical/contemporary juxtaposition that has become a hallmark of Mostly Mozart. “Considering Mozart more in a contemporary mindframe keeps his music fresh,” Langrée says. “It makes contemporary music sound classical, and classical music sound contemporary.”
Moss agrees. “By placing Mozart in different contexts, you realize that all of this music from the past is actually very present. You see that Mozart was as revolutionary as Messiaen or John Cage is today.”
Yes, even musical iconoclast John Cage has made his way onto a Mostly Mozart program this year, courtesy of the International Contemporary Ensemble––a.k.a. ICE––who return this season as Mostly Mozart’s Artists-in-Residence. In a highly unconventional program at the Park Avenue Armory, the performers will move from room to room, playing works by an assortment of contemporary composers, among them Cage’s Telephone and Birds for ensemble and electronically recorded birds.
Other ICE programs show the ensemble’s impressive range. A late-night program will intersperse three of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux with Sequenzas by Luciano Berio and a world premiere by Patricia Alessandrini, Homage to Berio. Another evening will offer a pair of bird-inspired works by Messiaen and Harvey, followed by Schubert’s Octet. “All music is new at one point. And all music, whether it’s new or old, is truest to us when it sounds and feels new,” says ICE’s executive director Claire Chase.
Schubert’s music will be heard throughout this year’s Festival, with performances of the Third, Fourth and Ninth symphonies, along with Berio’s Rendering: a startling reconstruction of Schubert’s unfinished Tenth symphony. Schubert’s chamber music will also be heard, with the “Rosamunde” Quartet played by the Ebène Quartet, and the “Trout” Quintet performed by the Emerson String Quartet, pianist Joyce Yang and bassist Timothy Cobb. “Schubert is a natural companion to Mozart,” says Langrée. “Aside from the fact that Schubert greatly admired Mozart, they both mixed ensemble playing with virtuosic solos.”
"Mozart introduces us to the human heart in a very large way,” adds Moss. “Schubert is about the soul.”
Among this year’s guest conductors is incoming Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducts both the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in three distinct programs. Ensemble Intercontemporain director Susanna Mälkki appears with both ICE and the Festival Orchestra. Pablo Heras-Casado returns to lead the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the sole period-instrument ensemble on this year’s Festival. And Andrew Manze makes his Mostly Mozart debut in a program that includes Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony.
This year’s Festival will also bring some of the world’s great soloists to Mostly Mozart, including violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Nicolas Hodges, Garrick Ohlsson, and Rudolf Buchbinder. And, Mostly Mozart favorite Joshua Bell returns on August 17–18 to play the Brahms Violin Concerto, alongside symphonies by Schubert and Mozart. Theatrical presentations have also become an essential aspect of Mostly Mozart, and Mark Morris returns this season with one of his signature dance works, Dido and Aeneas, with acclaimed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe singing Dido.
To close the Festival, Langrée returns to conduct Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with Martin Fröst, and Beethoven’s Mass in C, which Langrée says was influenced by Mozart. “It is surprising to me that this Mass isn’t performed more often,” Langrée says. “It is an extraordinary work of sacred music.”
For all the diversity of its repertoire, though, Mostly Mozart is––and always will be–– about its namesake. “There is no other composer you could do this with other than Mozart,” says Moss. “For one, he occurs at such a remarkable moment in terms of musical history, so that the before and after are forever different. For another, he was completely unique. He’s his own category, which allows you to move in many different directions. There is a method to the madness: it's more, ‘Inspired by Mozart.’ And, I think Mozart himself would have approved.”
“You must remember,” Langrée adds, “Mozart was a contemporary composer. He did not live in some ivory tower. He was very much a part of society. And yet, he was also writing for the future.”
“The one thing I hope people will take away from this year’s Festival,” says Moss, “is that Mozart feels very, very alive. That he is a vital composer, not some historical artifact. In other words, that you hear Mozart through the Messiaen and see they occupy the same musical universe. That is my hope.”
Peter Matthews is the editor of Feast of Music (www.feastofmusic.com), a website
about live music in New York City, and occasionally other places.
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