IN THE 1780s, Joseph Haydn would come to Mozart's house to play violin in quartets with Mozart playing viola. Once when FTC Leopold, Mozart's father, visited from Salzburg, Haydn, then 53 and much revered as the world's greatest composer, told Leopold what he thought of the young Mozart, then 29:
"I tell you before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name; he has taste and, apart from that, the greatest science in composition . . ."
Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society since 1981, says Haydn's astounding praise and admission "is akin to Joan Sutherland coming up to me and saying, 'Your daughter is the greatest singer I've ever known or heard about.'"
The friendship and mutual respect between Haydn and Mozart during the decade of the 1780s in Vienna will be celebrated Sunday by singers and orchestra of the Choral Arts Society at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium.
Choral Arts publicists have billed this as "The Classic Showdown: Haydn Meets Mozart" but the real showdown for area music-lovers may be between Choral Arts and The Handel Choir of Baltimore, under T. Herbert Dimmock, offering "Music for a Great Space" at the Basilica of the Assumption. Both groups are opening their seasons with concerts at the same moment, the cherished and clogged 3 p.m. Sunday concert hour.
A highlight for the start of Choral Arts' 25th season will be the return after nine years of its founder, Theodore ("Theo") Morrison, to lead his old friends in Mozart's "Vespers" as Sunday's program opener. The society's only other music director, Hall, conducts Haydn's "Heiligmesse" (Holy Mass) after intermission.
Ending the two-hour program will be a massive show of nostalgic firepower -- vocal and orchestral. At least 50 former society singers whom Hall invited back will come on stage to help sing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."
Hall keeps the chorus on its toes with annual auditions for all 80 singers, 10 of whom are paid. "I don't want them to stay the same but get better. Their responsibility includes learning music on their own time. It's time-consuming. We also have a 30-person professional chamber chorus and the education outreach ensemble."
Morrison, who left in 1981 to direct choral music at Smith College and more recently at the University of Michigan, was delighted to be invited by Hall. His wife, Ann Zibelman, is the former cantor at Har Sinai Congregation here. The couple has two children, Abraham, 7, and Rosie, 3.
"Baltimore's the city of my birth," Morrison said. "It's the one I love the most and I'm delighted to be coming home as an artist. Mozart is the pinnacle of the musical art, my model for understanding music for 30 years. When I face an impasse in my composing, I think about Mozart, 'What he would do?'"
After 20 years of "struggling to compose and not being able to finish things," Morrison has hit his stride as a prolific composer of choral, solo, organ and other instrumental works. "Now I start them and I finish them," he observed.
He will be on sabbatical soon to work on a Walt Whitman-inspired string quartet and symphony for orchestra, chorus and soloists. The piece is based on Whitman's poems to mark the 100th anniversary of his death in 1992.
In the audience Sunday, Morrison said, will be "my best friend for 30 years," Norman Scribner, who the year before the Baltimore society's birth, founded the Washington Choral Arts Society and still leads it. The two were roommates at the Peabody Conservatory, but briefly. "I was a rebel and didn't stay long," Morrison said. "I'm mainly self-taught."
"A big Haydn fan," Hall will conduct the fifth of Haydn's six masses in a project started in 1986 and ending next year. The Mozart Vespers are scheduled in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death next year. Soloists in both works will be soprano Lisa Asher, alto Yvette Matthews, tenor David Hamilton and bass Edward Crafts.
Tickets are available for Sunday's concert. Prices are $20, $17 and $7. Reservations may be made by calling (301) 523-7070.
4 more concerts; 3 special events
The Choral Arts Society's singers and orchestra will present four more subscription concerts. Three "special events' are also set.
The subscription concerts:
SUNDAY, DEC. 23: At 3 p.m. in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College. "A Classical Christmas: Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Berlioz and more"
SATURDAY, JAN. 26: At 8 p.m., Kraushaar. Mozart, "Canons, Motets and Anthems"
SATURDAY, APRIL 13: At 8 p.m. Kraushaar. Rutter's "Gloria" and Beveridge's "Once"
SATURDAY, MAY 4: At 7:30 p.m. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Bach's "The St. Matthew Passion"
The special events:
SUNDAY DEC. 9: At 3 p.m., Walters Art Gallery. "The 17th annual Renaissance Christmas Concert," full chorus and Annapolis Brass Quintet
SATURDAY DEC. 22: 9,10 At 4 p.m. Kraushaar. "Third Annual Christmas for Kids Concert," full chorus and orchestra,
Children's Chorus of Maryland
SUNDAY MARCH 17: At 8 p.m., Meyerhoff. "The King's Singers"