Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thoughts on the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival

So passes another summer and so another Mostly Mozart Festival, now in its 43rd year. Being a relatively young man this was but the second summer I attended the series, but it was also the second time I had difficulty in choosing a concert to attend since, you see, I am quite fond of Mozart. An exaggeration, perhaps, but I do believe there is a bit of a dearth of Mozart at his namesake festival. The NY Times[1] declared the festival, “not so long ago, a fresh idea gone hopelessly stale” and New York Magazine[2] assures that “Centered on the past and bound by self-imposed constraints, the festival has nevertheless found a way to grow young again.” I am not so enamored with the program and while I have not performed a tally, I suspect if one were to hold the festival to a literal interpretation of “mostly,” it would just barely be true.

Now I do not dispute Mozart’s influence on the other composers who share his stage during the festival, nor do I begrudge them their honors. One need not tear down other composers in order to elevate Mozart, but the composer does seem to be getting crowded out of his own show and the festival coordinators themselves seem at pains to emphasize Mozart's primacy and the relevance of the periphery of other composers. Take their “Six Degrees of Mozart Campaign:

Cute and well-intentioned, but rather shallow. (Although if you visit the interactive version on their website you will learn that “Flowering Tree=Magic Flute” and “Chopin was a piano whiz too!")

My observation is that the Mostly Mozart Festival has fallen victim, however obliquely, to the mistaken premise that more can be gained in from so-called “comparative studies” than from intensive and focused studies on a specific topic. If the music is as brilliant as we so readily acknowledge, if it indeed touches us, how can a festival that solely focuses on it be deficient? The music is the festival, and I suggest anyone bored by the latter is in fact bored by the former. Yet it is the context, we are told, that is the key to enjoying Mozart. Now surely a comparison of Mozart and his predecessors (J.S. Bach, D. Scarlatti), contemporaries (J. Haydn, early Beethoven), and followers (Mendelssohn, Brahms) is rewarding. We do appreciate Mozart as a composer more when we notice his uniqueness and when we understand the traditions he inherited and transformed. Yet such an insight first requires intimate knowledge of the individual composers. One must know Mozart qua Mozart and Beethoven qua Beethoven before one starts comparing them, lest one run the risk of making foolish analogies. Facile comparisons of structure and taste in the absence of understanding are apt only to do violence to the composers. The Mostly Mozart Festival is supposed to be an in-depth look at Mozart. When we hear Brahms and Mendelssohn and Wagner elsewhere throughout the rest of the year we may conduct our comparisons, if we so wish. Those composers, especially Brahms and Beethoven even more so, have the rest of the year to shine and they get far more attention from the NY Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall than Mozart. (Although this year we are graced with eight performances of Mozart from the NY Philharmonic and performances of Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro from the Metropolitan Opera. Still, Haydn and Beethoven figure quite prominently in Carnegie Hall’s season, which is wholly sans Mozart.)

Now I don't advocate scrubbing all other composers from the festival. I would suggest, though, that the show be "Overwhelmingly Mozart" with specific pieces of other composers added to highly specific aspects of Mozart, e.g. concertos by C.P.E. Bach and by Beethoven, choral pieces by Handel, et cetera. To highlight and discuss all of the pieces, the festival could include seminars, lectures, amateur performances, informal talks, and question and answer sessions with conductors and musicians. The festival presently offers five “keyboard masterclasses” which is a fine start toward a more scholarly and more Mozart-centric festival. At the concert I attended this summer pianist Robert Levin gave a short talk before his performance of the Piano Sonata No. 18 in D, KV.576. In addition to being a brilliant pianist he is gifted teacher and discussed the unique aspects of the 18th century piano: how it is tuned, how it is made, how it sounds in contrast to modern pianos. He said something that must be said more: that the greatest composers reward the most careful listeners. We have grown accustomed to the brief ditties of today, too used to bulleted lists on websites and snippets on blogs to focus on a long and complex piece of music. Sometimes even music lovers get too bogged down in scholarship and reading about the music, instead of listening. He isolated some of the major themes beforehand and discussed how Mozart moves material around, giving us one thing when we expect another, giving us something unexpected and unusual, and as only he can, finally giving us what we want, but better than we could have hoped.


Part I - Part II - Part III

Note: Jay Nordlinger has also reviewed the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival in the September issue of The New Criterion. It is good music criticism and overall a fine review. He seems far more sanguine about the far-flung festival than I am. He does say, though, of the festival administrators’ claim to focus on Mozart’s predecessors, contemporaries, and related successors, “That would be just about everybody, no?”


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