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Mozart Festival Promises Intimate Treat

By IRA STEINGROOT Special to the Planet
Friday July 30, 2004

As if being music director of the San Jose Symphony for two decades were not enough, world-renowned conductor George Wolfgang Cleve decided to found the San Francisco Bay Area’s Midsummer Mozart Festival back in 1975. Every summer since then, Cleve has regaled Mozart fans with exquisite performances that range from old warhorses like the late symphonies to more obscure works like the German dances or the chamber works for basset horns. This year promises to be equally rewarding and surprising. 

To some, Mozart may be just a bright point in the history of classical or European art music. In fact, he is far more than that. As Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” As a child prodigy guided by a learned and ambitious father, he had the chance to hear all the music of Europe as he traveled from his hometown of Salzburg in Austria to Germany, Bohemia, Belgium, Holland, France and Italy. In England he was befriended by and learned from Bach’s youngest son Johann Christian. In Vienna, he had access to Bach and Handel scores in the music library of his friend Baron van Swieten. His closest musical friend was the great composer Joseph Haydn. 

Much like jazz pianist Art Tatum unifying all preceding vernacular jazz piano styles, Mozart had no difficulty welding all of these disparate strands of European music into a single, all-encompassing classical style. His was fertile soil for these seeds, a veritable prima materia waiting to be transmuted into a musical philosopher’s stone. Every composition, and there are over 600, to which he set his hand was golden, and these works in turn multiplied by generating the succeeding history of classical music.  

More important, his compositions stand as benchmarks of genius, highpoints in the achievement of the human spirit. Mozart delighted to be delighted and he has bequeathed to us the most delightful body of music ever created. The pieces chosen for this year’s festival are exemplary in that respect. The overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio is full of lovely “Turkish” percussion effects and the “Marten aller Arten” aria in particular lets the performer display some incredible vocal gymnastics. Mozart wrote this light-hearted opera when he was 27.  

The two piano concertos could not be more different. Piano Concerto No. 16 is full of melodies that might have been written for a music box or carousel. Mozart’s pieces often begin with child-like tunes, but the orchestrations add a depth and poignancy that reveal a darker aspect of his soul. As Thomas Hood put it, “There’s not a string attuned to mirth but has its chord in melancholy.” The romantic Piano Concerto No. 24 was one of those works that kept Mozart’s name alive during the 19th century when he was seen as more of a cult favorite or a white toy poodle scampering around a grand piano than the equal of Bach and Beethoven. This work in a minor key presents the dark side up front with an ominous, foreboding opening that leads to some of Mozart’s greatest writing for the piano. Celebrated pianist Seymour Lipkin will be performing his own cadenzas for this one. 

The most esoteric piece this year is The Adagio and Fugue for Strings, another piece in a minor key. This work is often, and with no evidence, linked with Mozart’s freemasonic compositions. He became a mason in 1784, followed shortly thereafter by Haydn and his own father. The piece was actually written in 1783 for two pianos (K. 426) and then re-fashioned in 1788 for strings with the addition of an introductory adagio. Although it has no real masonic link or content, its exquisitely strange harmonies and dark mood suggest the movement of an inexorable fate. We are reminded of Marvell’s words: “But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” 

The two symphonies No. 39 and No. 41, the great Jupiter, along with No. 40, were written in 1788. During a six-week period in the summer of 1788, after the failure of Don Giovanni in Vienna, during the time that his infant daughter died, while composing half a dozen other pieces including the adagio and fugue, he carried these three symphonies around in his head and then wrote them down one after the other in fully orchestrated versions. Not only would that be difficult in itself, but these are the greatest symphonies of the 18th century and among the greatest pieces of music ever composed. The contrapuntal final movement of the Jupiter is usually singled out for particular excellence, but both symphonies are magnificent from beginning to end. 

This music can often be heard in large concert halls, but the Mozart Festival gives us the chance to hear it in more intimate settings, not unlike those in which Mozart himself first performed these pieces. In spite of the small-scale of the venues involved, there is never anything small-scale about the performances. Cleve is a masterful conductor who can transform an ensemble of well-trained players into a living, breathing music-making organism. Beyond technical excellence, there is also the question of conception. Some years ago, when he conducted the ballet music from the opera Idomeneo, he completely recast the disparate pieces so that they became parts of a unified work. It is this personal combination of expertise, inspiration and insight that makes the Midsummer Mozart Festival such a treasure.