Mozart: summer's musical cool breeze BSO's 'Summerfest' series is a seasonal treat

July 25, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra calls its current "Summerfest" series "Mozart Mania," and aptly named it is.

The BSO's programs, which -- except for one concert -- consist entirely of the Salzburg composer's music, have indeed produced something like mania at the box office: Every concert so far has sold out. Compare this to last summer's dismal showing, when the orchestra's concerts of music by Brahms and Rachmaninoff filled less than half of Meyerhoff Hall.

Mozart's music and summer heat make for boffo box office.

It's summer and the living isn't easy. Even in air-conditioning, one doesn't want to exert oneself -- whether it's at the office or in the concert hall. But summertime and Mozart together have a history of success. The granddaddy of summer music festivals is Austria's Salzburg Festival, which was founded after World War I and has always devoted a substantial part of its offerings to works by its most celebrated son.

In fact, one could argue that Mozart's current reputation as perhaps the greatest of all composers has a lot to do with summer. In the days before classical summer concerts -- that is, before air-conditioning made indoor summer concerts commonplace -- Mozart was considered a great composer, but not a particularly popular one. In the 19th century, audiences usually knew only one or two of his piano concertos, a few of his symphonies and perhaps two of his operas, "Don Giovanni" and "The Magic Flute." Serious listening, which was done in the winter months, was for the likes of Beethoven and his Romantic successors -- composers who tackled monumental subjects in a monumental manner and who made listeners work.

Air-conditioning has made it possible to go into the concert hall in the summer, but not -- as the half-filled halls at past "Summerfests" suggest -- to hear the heat-generating Romantics.

Mozart, though his music is inwardly warm and passionate, is outwardly chaste and cool. The urgency of his expression is never overwhelming and overwrought in the way that those of Beethoven and his successors are. And the fact of his summer popularity is indisputable. Ever since the Mostly Mozart Festival started in New York City in 1966, it has been a cash cow for Lincoln Center that has been copied all over the world. This is not to say that other festivals devoted to other composers have not been successful -- the oldest of all summer festivals is the Bayreuth Festival, which celebrates the works of Richard Wagner, the heaviest and hottest of all composers. But Bayreuth is a festival for the initiate and the true believer. Mozart festivals can satisfy either the connoisseur or those who just want to hear lovely music.

What makes Mozart so easy to listen to? In the three centuries or so before Mozart's birth, when what we call Western classical music began to develop, music didn't have a particularly individual character. Composers wrote music that people could dance to, that they could worship to, that they could mourn to -- it was music for an occasion, and when that occasion was over the music was usually forgotten. Beginning with Haydn and Mozart, but really reaching a first zenith with Beethoven, composers became conscious of themselves as artists, rather than as artisans, who wrote for posterity and for themselves rather than for an audience at a specific occasion.

Mozart had the great good fortune to be perhaps not only the most abundantly endowed composer who ever lived, but also to have come along at exactly the right time. He could at once write for the pleasure of his public and for the enjoyment of connoisseurs. This was something of which he was himself conscious. When he sent copies of his 11th, 12th and 13th concertos to his father, he wrote that these were pieces that would delight the general public at the same time that they would intrigue the connoisseur.

The unthinkable

How different was the attitude of Beethoven -- or at least the Beethoven who began to emerge at the time of such middle-period masterpieces as the "Eroica" Symphony. These are works that have a highly individual character -- certainly, more individual than anything Mozart or anyone else had ever written -- and they show a disregard for the audience and the performer that would have been unthinkable earlier.

"Do you think I care about your wretched fiddle when the muses speak to me," Beethoven is reputed to have told one of the violinists who was struggling to learn one of his middle-period quartets. And when Beethoven entered his last period, he became even more obstreperous about his music. When he shipped his late "Hammerklavier" Sonata off to his publisher, he remarked, "This will give people something to think about in 50 years or so."

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